Gators find different way to win while developing championship mentality

After a “ho-hum” performance last week in Nashville the Gators came out of the gates slow against Kentucky. The Wildcats held a 10-7 lead with time quickly ticking off the clock before halftime and it looked as if the Gators would head into the locker room on the wrong side of the scoreboard for the first time this season.

Championship teams find different ways to win football games and that’s exactly what Kadarius Toney provided his team just before halftime.

Kentucky sent out 2019 Ray Guy winner Max Duffy to punt the ball. The Aussie tends to roll right but is talented enough to kick the ball to either side of the field while on the move. He’s an All-American and the reigning best punter in the country but this one punt just went astray and Florida was ready with two returners.

“We wanted to use two returners to take advantage of that situation that they were in and see if he made a mistake,” Dan Mullen said after the win. “If he was supposed to punt it left and punted it right, you know, we thought, ‘OK, KT [Toney] is going to be all by himself.’ Or if he is supposed to punt it right, then Xzavier is going to be by himself.”

The punt was supposed to go towards the West sideline but went to the East and Kadarius Toney. The senior caught the ball, looked up, saw green grass and end zone, and took off for a 50-yard punt return touchdown, the first punt return score for the Gators since Freddie Swain returned one 85-yards against Colorado State in 2018. That made the game 14-10 and the Gators never looked back, scoring 27-unanswered points on the way to a win.

The Gators’ defense forced punts on the first two drives but Kentucky was able to control the clock, running 18 plays over 11:13 in the first quarter. The Wildcats tied the game with a 6-play, 38-yard drive after a Florida fumble, and took the lead one drive later after a 14-play drive that ate up another 7:24.

Florida was forced to punt but the defense answered and got Kentucky’s offense off the field, leading to the 50-yard punt return touchdown.

“It was huge. I think special teams did a great job today, executing in key moments. I think Kentucky also did a great job of slowing the game down and working the clock in the first half. I think we only had around 20 plays, and we’ve just got to be more efficient as a whole,” Kyle Trask said. “But yeah, that was huge. It gave us the lead going into halftime. Yeah, at the end of the day, it was definitely a play that had a huge impact on the game.”

This is, however, the second week in a row where Florida won a game by three scores and fans still left wanting more. It’s a 24-point conference win, but it doesn’t feel that way. Mullen and his players said they want to enjoy.

“We’re going to enjoy this win tonight. I know here you can get to a point where wins just become expected or assumed instead of a joy. We’re going to make sure we enjoy this win tonight.”

At the end of the day the Florida Gators are the No. 6 team in the country. They’re 7-1 and a win away from winning the SEC East. The win today gave Dan Mullen a 28-6 record in his first 34 games. That’s a game better than Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, who started 27-7 in their first 34.

That’s a lot to be happy about, yet, when posed with that question and asked about his team being on the cusp of heading to Atlanta, which will be the first time a Dan Mullen led team goes to the SEC Championship, Mullen showed a championship mindset.

“We haven’t done anything yet. We’re where you like to be, which is in first place, controlling our own destiny, but we don’t want to get into a situation where we don’t do that. How that happens is we don’t prepare, we don’t improve, we don’t get better, we don’t get ready to play a tough Tennessee team in Knoxville next week.”

Florida’s offense has carried them each week. They weren’t bad on Saturday but they weren’t up to their standard. Championship teams find ways to win and championship teams have that never satisfied mentality that Mullen exhibited during his post game press conference.

Nick de la Torre
A South Florida native, Nick developed a passion for all things sports at a very young age. His love for baseball was solidified when he saw Al Leiter’s no-hitter for the Marlins live in May of 1996. He was able to play baseball in college but quickly realized there isn’t much of a market for short, slow outfielders that hit around the Mendoza line. Wanting to continue with sports in some capacity he studied journalism at the University of Central Florida. Nick got his first start in the business as an intern for a website covering all things related to the NFL draft before spending two seasons covering the Florida football team at Bleacher Report. That job led him to GatorCountry. When he isn’t covering Gator sports, Nick enjoys hitting way too many shots on the golf course, attempting to keep up with his favorite t.v. shows and watching the Heat, Dolphins and Marlins. Follow him on twitter @NickdelatorreGC