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31 and done: Florida Gators’ win streak over Kentucky ends

Kentucky's Lynn Bowden Jr. (1) celebrates a 54-yard touchdown pass during the third quarter. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Saturday 8 September 2018 23.15

GAINESVILLE — First-year Florida coach Dan Mullen knew the winning streak over Kentucky would eventually end.

The streak spanned 31 years, six U.S. presidents, seven UF coaches and 11,620 days. It survived changes in quarterbacks, schemes and philosophies. It covered the highs of national championships and the lows of Muschamp, McElwain and Zook.

"I imagine, one day, the streak will be broken," Mullen said before the game.

That day finally came Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, when Kentucky ended the nation's longest active losing streak in an annual series with a 27-16 upset of No. 25 UF.

"We don't have to deal with anymore after today," Wildcats coach Mark Stoops said.

They shouldn't, because this was not a fluke or a stroke of luck after 125 periods of misfortune. This wasn't a weird matchup of contrasting styles; Mullen played Stoops (2-0) every year at Mississippi State and knew (or should have known) what to expect.

The explanation was much simpler and, for the 1-1 Gators, hard to fathom. The Wildcats — fresh off a too-close-for-comfort win over lowly Central Michigan — were the better team.

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Kentucky was noticeably better on both lines.

At halftime, both teams had rushed 17 times. UF gained 51 yards on those carries. Kentucky had 161.

The gap was obvious on third-and-1 in the second quarter, when Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson sneaked up the middle and his line paved the way for three yards. The push didn't relent all night. Kentucky rushed for 303 yards — the most UF has allowed since the Georgia Southern debacle in 2013.

The push worked on the other side of the ball, too. Kentucky's defensive front hurried Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks on two of the first eight times he dropped back to pass.

The line struggles that were obscured last week against a bad Division I-AA team are holdovers from last year's 4-7 flop. Those problems take years, not weeks, to fix, which doesn't bode well for some of UF's remaining games (No. 18 Mississippi State in three weeks, No. 11 LSU the week after that and No. 3 Georgia at the end of October).

"Got to be much more physical at the point of attack…" Mullen said. "I think also we have to be more physical up front on the offensive line."

Kentucky was better at quarterback.

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Franks missed 21 of his 38 passes, while Wilson was the kind of runner Mullen would love to have. In the few instances when he felt pressure from the Gators' front, Wilson was able to step up or scramble out to avoid it. He rushed for 105 yards, including 24 on a nifty fake and run that gave the Wildcats a 14-10 lead in the third quarter.

Wilson also came through on third-and-16 in the third quarter, when he somehow found a streaking Lynn Bowden for a 54-yard touchdown and a two-score lead.

"As a quarterback, as a leader, I've got to do better…" Franks said. "It all just falls on me to get the job done."

Kentucky was better at running back.

Benny Snell has called himself the best back in the SEC and didn't leave many doubters at The Swamp. He needed only 12 carries to crack 100 yards and finished with 175. UF's talented running back corps rushed for 74 on 15 attempts.

Kentucky was better when it mattered most, too.

The Wildcats converted on 9 of their 13 tries on third down. They outscored UF 20-6 in the second half. They intercepted Franks four minutes into the fourth, should have another three minutes later and sealed it with a strip and fumble return for a touchdown on the final play of the game.

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The Kentucky collapse that seemed as inevitable as death and taxes never happened. There was no flashback to 1993 (Doering's got a touchdown) or the overtime win in 2014, or the two receivers Kentucky left unguarded in last year's 28-27 UF comeback. Instead, it was Florida that had one of the game's biggest late gaffes, getting caught with too many men on the field immediately after calling a timeout.

"That's coaching," Mullen said. "That's on us."

Kentucky even got the biggest break of the night, when UF kicker Evan McPherson missed a 36-yard field goal (that appeared to split the uprights). After 31 years of futility, the Wildcats were probably due for a fortunate call to go their way.

Not that they needed it. They were the better team Saturday night.

And it showed.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.


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