Florida football score, takeaways: Special teams kick No. 6 Gators into gear, fuel win over Kentucky

By Adam Silverstein
November 28, 2020
Florida football score, takeaways: Special teams kick No. 6 Gators into gear, fuel win over Kentucky
Football

Image Credit: @GatorsFB on Twitter

The first half was mostly forgettable, but a strong effort surrounding the halftime whistle led the No. 6 Florida Gators to a clear 34-10 victory over the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday afternoon at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Florida got off to one of its worst starts of the season but nevertheless hit all the key points it needed to pull away for its 33rd victory in the last 34 meetings with its SEC East rival.

Despite a slow, plodding first 30 minutes, the Gators saw their star players show out and their defense step up when it counted. The most important result coming out of any game is the victory itself, and Florida achieved that without much consternation or worry, particularly once the second half began.

The Gators (7-1) continue their trek toward a likely SEC Championship Game berth, while the Wildcats (3-6) keep falling far below preseason expectations. What went down on Saturday afternoon into The Swamp? Let’s dive into some takeaways from the victory.

1. Special stuff: As Florida’s offense stalled and its defense struggled to get off the field, special teams truly came through for the first time this season. Head coach Dan Mullen called a picture-perfect fake punt as it looked like the Gators looked to go three-and-out on their first drive. Two plays later, redshirt senior quarterback Kyle Trask hit junior tight end Kyle Pitts for a monster 56-yard touchdown.

Trailing 10-7 after a fumble and two punts, Florida needed another spark, and special teams provided that by way of a punt return from senior wide receiver Kadarius Toney. Redshirt senior punter Jacob Finn booted a perfect coffin corner punt down to the 1-yard line to end the prior drive, and the struggling defense got a key stand deep in Kentucky territory near the end of the first half. Mullen decided to run a misdirection on the return with blockers running back towards redshirt junior cornerback Marco Wilson instead of Toney. That allowed Toney to catch the ball, juke one defender and house it for a score with 42 seconds left.

Both massive special teams calls were risks, both were executed perfectly, and both resulted in touchdowns the Gators desperately needed with the offense stuck in neutral. Toney’s return was especially important because it allowed Florida to take advantage of its deferment of the opening coin toss. UF scored right before halftime to go up 14-10 and opened the second half with another touchdown to take a 21-10 lead that was relatively insurmountable for UK’s stagnant offense.

2. Welcome back: Florida’s tight ends have been productive over the last two games, but there’s truly no replacing Pitts. Back after a couple games away while recovering from a concussion and broken nose, Pitts beasted with his second 3+ touchdown game of the season. He hauled in five passes on the day, including the aforementioned 56-yard score and two more TD receptions from Trask for a 99-yard effort. Pitts is tied for the FBS lead with 11 TD catches, but what’s truly impressive is that those have come in less than 22 quarters of action. He is on pace to be a top-15 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and the clear favorite for the John Mackey Award.

3. Racking ’em up: It’s laugh-out-loud funny when you can call a 256-yard, three-touchdown performance ho-hum, but that’s the best way to describe Trask’s game Saturday. He was not asked to do much, and he didn’t need to do much. In fact, the stat line is actually impressive for Trask when you consider that the offense had the ball for less than 7 minutes in the first half. Trask completed 21 of 27 passes and moved into a tie with Rex Grossman for third all-time at Florida with 34 TD passes on the season. Remember, Trask has only played eight games and all have come against SEC competition. He’s more TD away from second place and five shy of Danny Wuerffel’s record of 39 in 1996.

Trask is the first signal caller in program history to throw 3+ touchdowns in eight straight games and 6+ twice in a single season. The only person to accomplish the latter in their career was Wuerffel. Despite being the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, Trask was pulled from the game on a scoring opportunity in the fourth quarter, and Mullen was especially conservative with the play calling once the Gators took a 31-10 lead. It’s not that Trask needs to pad his stats, per se, but more yards and touchdowns never hurt when going up against players from schools like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State for the stiff-arm trophy.

4. Credit where it’s due: One of Saturday’s highlights — especially if you’re a fan who is tired of the inconsistent defense — was Mullen screaming at defensive coordinator Todd Grantham on the sideline. The heated exchange came not only as Florida trailed Kentucky 10-7 but with the Gators being absolutely obliterated in time of possession. The Wildcats held a 23:23-6:37 edge at the end of the first half despite both teams gaining 175 yards.

Despite the consternation of Mullen and the fans, Grantham’s defense clamped down when it counted. Not only did it force two punts deep in Kentucky territory at the end of the first half, it held the visitors scoreless in the second half. In doing so, Florida forced three interceptions — thanks to six quarterback hurries — and had seven tackles for loss. This as the Gators offense committed two turnovers in the game, making opportunities to regain possession even more important despite the relatively clean victory for the hosts.

Kentucky was held to 2 of 13 on third down and had just 62 yards passing. There are concerns about Florida’s seeming inability to stop the run against teams committed to establishing it, but the time of possession flipped to 20:40-9:56 in the Gators’ favor over the final 30 minutes showed a clear shift in the aptitude of the defense. A paradigm of that was sophomore linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, who struggled in the first quarter but finished with two solo tackles, half a sack, an interception and two QB hurries in a terrific second half.

5. History made: Mullen on Saturday became the winningest coach in program history through the first 34 games of his career. Florida improved to 28-6 under Mullen through 34 games, besting marks the program reached under Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier, both of whom started 27-6 only to lose their 34th games. Consider how quickly Mullen has turned the Gators offense around following a decade of lacking production. Oh, and they advanced to and won a pair of New Year’s Six bowl games in his first two season —

6. Odds and ends: Freshman RB Nay’Quan Wright and sophomore WR Justin Shorter lost fumbles … senior safety Shawn Davis and freshman defensive back Tre’Vez Johnson nabbed interceptions … after being perfect for most of the season, junior kicker Evan McPherson missed a field goal for the second straight week. He finished 2 of 3 with makes from 34 and 40 plus a miss from 45 … Kentucky was down 16 players, including three starters, due to COVID-19 issues … Florida was down two starting linebackers for the same reason …

The Gators improved to 53-18 all-time against the Wildcats with victories in 33 of the last 34 meetings … UF Is 29-5 against UK inside The Swamp with wins in 20 of the last 21 games … Florida under Mullen is 20-1 when scoring first, 24-1 when leading after the third quarter and 18-0 when allowing 20 points or fewer … the Gators improved to 22-2 against unranked teams … Florida has scored 24+ points in 23 of the last 25 games and 34+ points in 10 straight games, the longest stretch in program history … the Gators have scored 147 offensive touchdowns in 34 games under Mullen compared to 93 in 38 games from 2015-17 … UF has scored in 406 consecutive games, an NCAA record

7. What’s next? Florida will face rival Tennessee in its penultimate game of the regular season. The Gators will hit the road to face the Volunteers in Knoxville, Tennessee, on Saturday. UF has won three straight and 14 of the last 15 against UT, including six of seven in Knoxville.

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