UK grinds it out vs. Gators to give Stoops record
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Much of the hype surrounding Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson was dashed, or at least diminished, in the Swamp on Saturday night.
No. 20 Kentucky intercepted Richardson twice, including one Keidron Smith returned 65 yards for a touchdown, and the Wildcats toppled the 12th-ranked Gators 26-16 to notch consecutive wins in the series for the first time in 45 years.
Richardson was off all game, a stark contrast from last week's three-touchdown, turnover-free performance against then-No. 7 Utah. He had two throws in this one that were complete head-scratchers, and the Wildcats (2-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) made him pay dearly.
"I feel like I let everybody down, especially the defense, because I looked everybody on the defense in the eye and I told them I got them and I was going to put up points for them," Richardson said. "Obviously I didn't."
Linebacker Jordan Wright, cleared to play Thursday after sitting out the opener, made a one-handed catch on Richardson's pass to the flat late in the second quarter. Kentucky quarterback Will Levis scored three plays later.
Richardson's second pick was more egregious. He misread a defensive alignment and threw a pass to the wide side of the field that Smith easily picked off. Smith returned it down the sideline and had to juke only Richardson to make it to the end zone.
"I think sometimes the quarterback position, you get that spotlight put on you," Florida coach Billy Napier said. "Reality is there's things around you that can be done that will contribute to quarterback play."
Richardson's interceptions were among three big plays that propelled Kentucky to back-to-back wins over Florida (1-1, 0-1) for the first time since 1976-77.
Levis connected with Dane Key for a 55-yard score in the first half, a perfect throw that showed why Levis is projected to be a first-round draft pick in 2023.
"You've got to be a tough son of a b to come into this place and win," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said, taking a shot at an SEC Network analyst who called his team soft earlier this week. "That's what we showed. We may win or lose, but we're tough."
Twenty-two scouts from 15 NFL teams were on hand for the game. Most of them probably were there to see Richardson. None of them could have been impressed with what the third-year sophomore did in his third career start.
The Gainesville native completed 14 of 35 passes for 143 yards. He also ran six times for 4 yards. Kentucky stacked the line of scrimmage and forced Richardson to be a pocket passer, clearly understanding that the Gators have few difference-makers outside of their quarterback who looked like a budding star seven days earlier.
Levis was considerably better. He completed 13 of 24 passes for 202 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. The pick was a great play by Florida defenders Brenton Cox and Gervon Dexter. Cox pressured Levis and deflected the pass, and Dexter made a diving catch.
But it was Kentucky's defense that stole the show.
"Defensively, what more can I say?" Stoops said.
Kentucky: The Wildcats are far from soft. SEC Network analyst Roman Harper called the Cats "a little bit softer" than Florida on the Paul Finebaum Show earlier this week, and Kentucky players used it as motivation. Kentucky dominated the second half, outscoring the Gators 13-0.
Florida: The Gators spent the last week getting patted and may have been ripe for a letdown. Regardless, the Wildcats exposed weaknesses and showed Florida still has a long ways to go to catch up in the SEC East.
Kentucky should leapfrog Florida in the next AP college football poll.
"Heck, we must jump into the top 10 now," Stoops quipped.
The victory moved Stoops past Paul "Bear" Bryant for the most wins (61) in Kentucky's football history.
"I'm glad it's here," Stoops said. "You like to be home with family and friends, but we'll have time for that. We needed this win. Just to get this opportunity. I've been given incredible support. It's been a group effort."
Kentucky free safety Jalen Geiger was carted off the field in the second quarter with what appeared to be a serious leg injury.Team trainers placed an air cast on his left leg before helping him onto the cart.
Florida linebacker Ventrell Miller, one of the team's top tacklers, left the game with a lower leg injury. Right tackle Michael Tarquin injured his right ankle and limped to the sideline.
Kentucky: Hosts Youngstown State of the Football Championship Subdivision next Saturday.
Florida: Hosts South Florida next Saturday. The Gators are 2-0 in the in-state series.