Color it ugly, but it was domination

For a game that the numbers show almost total domination in every category by the Florida Gators, Saturday night’s 26-7 win over Kentucky left the crowd of 90,292 at The Swamp feeling like something was missing. The Gators did plenty of things right and often they were spectacular, but mixed in were enough miscues and misfires to color this one ugly.

Florida got the win and that is the only objective that really matters here, and fortunately style points don’t matter in football but any way you slice and dice this one, you come up with a performance that leaves plenty of room for improvement between now and next Saturday when the Gators play host to Alabama. Make no mistake about it, the Gators can’t afford this many mistakes, miscues and misfires against an Alabama defense that is at least several light years better than the one they faced Saturday night.

The fifth-ranked Gators racked up 514 yards of offense, balancing the run and pass about as well as they ever have in the Urban Meyer era. The Gators ran 66 plays, 38 on the ground and 28 in the air for the kind of 60-40 mix that Coach Urban Meyer wants. Florida had a season-high 235 yards rushing to go with 279 passing yards. Defensively, the Gators gave up only 249 yards, only 39 of those on the ground, and only seven points.

You look at those numbers and you wonder how it is that Kentucky actually put a scare into the Gators in the first half and why it is that Florida didn’t take the Wildcats to the woodshed in the second. As good as the numbers were, it could have been and should have been a whole lot worse.

The first half was the worst. Florida went into the dressing room with a 12-7 lead but it took near perfect execution of the two-minute drill by Chris Leak to get the go-ahead touchdown. The same offense that shot itself in the foot repeatedly in the first 28 minutes of the half could do no wrong in the final 1:59 when Leak and his receivers hooked up five straight times for 60 yards to march the Gators to the Kentucky 18. Leak avoided a sack on the next play and turned it into a five yard gain, then he had the right play called at the line of scrimmage, catching Kentucky on its heels, expecting a pass, when he handed off to DeShawn Wynn for an easy 13-yard jaunt into the end zone with 22 seconds left. That play momentarily lifted the spirits of the crowd but Kentucky’s second straight blocked extra point only made the crowd uneasy once again.

These same Gators that made it look so easy on the first drive when they turned a double-reverse gadget play — Leak handed to Bubba Caldwell who handed to Dallas Baker who pitched it back to Leak who threw 33 yards into the end zone to an uncovered Jemalle Cornelius for Florida’s first touchdown — were also the same Gators that found ways to stop themselves offensively three straight possessions.

“I never felt like we were stopped,” said Meyer. “We had nonsense penalties, dropped balls and a couple of turnovers. We were very much out of synch.”

If the offense seemed out of synch, the defense seemed like it was on another planet for much of the first half. To Florida’s credit, the Gators gave up just one touchdown, but they allowed Kentucky to control the ball for long stretches of time (time of possession in the first half, Kentucky 17:08; Florida 12:52) and there were plenty of missed opportunities for big plays.

On Kentucky’s scoring drive, the Gators never could get to quarterback Andre Woodson who completed all six of his passes including a one-yarder to Marcus Grinter for a touchdown that sucked the life out of the Florida crowd. Florida had a chance to stop the Wildcats inside the ten when Curtis Pulley fumbled but somehow the ball squirted through the hands of Florida’s Reggie Nelson who missed a golden opportunity to recover. On the next play, Kentucky ran a reverse to David Jones who was hemmed in back at the 20 by three Florida defenders. Nobody laid a hand on him as he twisted, turned and dodged his way through the entire Florida defense before going down at the one.

Florida answered the Kentucky touchdown with the drive at the end of the half, but the Gators that went into the locker room knew two things: they hadn’t played very well and if they were going to win this game, they had to play better in the second half.

“It was really frustrating,” said Ray McDonald, who had his first two sacks since the Wyoming game in 2005. “We didn’t come out the way the Gators should come out, especially at home. We had to change that during halftime and we did.”

McDonald felt Florida didn’t have much of an emotional edge when the game began. The lack of fire in the belly rendered a sluggish effort by the Gators and that only fueled the Kentucky effort. Of Kentucky’s 249 total yards for the game, 184 were in the first half and 125 of those were in the second quarter.

“We really didn’t play the way we should have played,” said McDonald. “We did come out kind of flat and we had to get it up during halftime.”

Whatever was said at halftime obviously lit a fire under the defense. It all started with the pass rush and with Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey crashing down from the outside and McDonald providing the push up the middle, Woodson was caught in the crosshairs. Woodson was 17-23 for 159 yards in the first half. In the second half he completed 9-14 but only for 51 yards. He was sacked four times in the second half and rushed into numerous bad throws.

The Florida offense only got two second half touchdowns but the Gators should have scored at least three more times. They stopped themselves with a fumble, an interception and some poor play in the red zone on another drive that ended with a fake field goal attempt that came up empty.

Florida’s first possession of the second half got a touchdown but typical of the game, it was a drive that had to be rescued. Wynn, who finished the night with 104 yards, busted into the Kentucky secondary for 21 yards but the ball was punched out of his arm from behind. Fullback Billy Latsko outhustled two Kentucky defenders to make the recovery at the Wildcats’ 30 yard line. Two plays later, Leak hit Kenneth Tookes with a 17-yard strike to the Kentucky 13. A five-yard run by Caldwell and a personal foul on the Wildcats moved it to the four where Moore powered off the right side into the end zone with 7:41 remaining. When Chris Hetland booted the extra point through the uprights, the Florida crowd let out a roar that was more of a sigh of relief after the two previous blocked attempts.

A 30-yard Leak to Baker pass had the Gators on the march again when Moore fumbled at the Kentucky 28. Freshman Tim Tebow came into the game on Florida’s next possession and ran three straight times, gaining 25, 12 and 25 yards to give Florida first and goal at the UK six. Leak was sent in to replace the gassed Tebow and after a false start and an incompletion, he threw an interception at the goal line.

The final touchdown for the Gators came in the fourth quarter after an 18-yard Kentucky punt gave Florida the ball at the UK 34. On the Florida scoring drive, freshman Jarred Fayson lined up at quarterback on the first play and gained 10 yards on a sweet, then Tebow took the next three snaps and got the Gators to the Kentucky nine. Leak came in and one play later found Cornelius Ingram for a six-yard scoring pass with 10:04 remaining in the game.

Florida had one more scoring threat that got to the UK five behind passes of 15 and 32 yards from Leak to Baker, but a false start and a sack pushed it back to the 22. On fourth down, Florida tried a fake field goal that was stopped after a three-yard gain.

It was a win for the Gators and that’s the good thing. Florida is 4-0, 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference and ranked fifth nationally. However, all the mistakes and all the missed opportunities told Meyer that things have to change this week.

“A lot of times young people and old people tend to think everything is okay,” said Meyer. “Well, it’s not okay. Football teams either get better or get worse. I thought we played very hard but we didn’t play very smart. Those four penalties on the offensive line … that’s not very smart.

“We have a good team coming in here next week that beat us soundly last year so we have a lot of work to do and we’re excited to get after it Monday. I heard that team talking about us. It’s going to be a good week of practice.”

The good week of practice is a necessity. Meyer blamed himself for Florida’s poor practice week leading up to the Kentucky game.

“I don’t think we had a great week,” he said. “Tuesday we couldn’t really practice (weather). We were on that gymnasium floor and we kind of shuffled around a little bit and I let them go. You can’t do that. You start feeling good about yourself because you win on the road up at Tennessee and you come back and play like that. I know why because we didn’t practice very well on Tuesday and that’s on me.”

So color this a win, albeit an ugly one. Florida did plenty of right things to make sure the game really wasn’t close although it kind of felt that way because Kentucky had a seven minute advantage in time of possession. Still, the Gators won by a handy margin, had over 500 yards of offense and held the Wildcats to less than 250 yards and only seven points.

Those numbers are outstanding but the picture they paint is still an ugly one. Still, you get no points for style or lack of. On this night, the Gators could be thankful for that.

GAME NOTES: Sophomore wide receiver Nyan Boateng had surgery on his ankle Friday. He will miss the rest of the season and will take a medical redshirt … Leak set the school record for pass attempts (1,203) and completions (733), overtaking Shane Matthews in both categories … With his two touchdown passes, Leak moved within one of Rex Grossman’s 78 for second place on Florida’s all time touchdown pass list … Wynn gained 104 yards, the same amount he had last week in the win over Tennessee. It marked the first time in his career that he’s rushed for 100-plus yards on consecutive weeks … Tebow rushed for 73 yards, a career best … Baker set a career high with 148 receiving yards on seven catches. For the season, Baker has 24 catches for 406 yards and four touchdowns … Ingram’s touchdown catch in the fourth quarter was the first TD of his Florida career … Punter Eric Wilbur had punts of 58 and 46 yards … Kentucky managed just five punt return yards and 75 kickoff return yards. Entering the game, the Wildcats were averaging 23 yards per punt return and 31 yards per kickoff return … Former Gators on the sidelines Saturday night included Ed Chester, Judd Davis, Casey Griffith, Todd McCullough, Lance Butler, Fred Weary, Deac Story, Chris Doering and Ray Criswell.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.