GAINESVILLE — No. 6 Florida started sluggishly on offense Saturday, stalling on its first three plays against Kentucky.
The defense was spotty, too, so much so that coach Dan Mullen erupted at coordinator Todd Grantham on the sideline.
So the Gators did what championship-level teams do. They found a way to win with special teams. Two bits of trickery and one perfectly executed punt sparked UF’s 34-10 win at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
“We talk about all three phases (of the game) being equal,” Mullen said. “Everyone on the team’s got to understand how important each one of those things is worth.”
This time, special teams was worth a victory that put the Gators (7-1) one win away from the Dec. 19 SEC title game. UF can clinch a spot there by beating Tennessee next weekend.
If the Gators are going to have a chance of knocking off No. 1 Alabama in the conference title game, they’ll need more game-changing plays like the ones they pulled out Saturday.
The first one happened midway through the first quarter. After watching Kentucky (3-6) drain six-plus minutes off the clock on its initial drive, the Gators’ offense stalled in three plays. Instead of giving the ball back to the Wildcats, Mullen — a member of the punt shield as a player at Ursinus — did what he did in the opener against Miami a year ago, also on his side of the field.
He called a fake.
“It looked pretty good in practice,” Mullen said.
It looked pretty good during the game, too. Dameon Pierce — lined up as the right upback — took the direct snap and ran left, with the other two upbacks clearing his path. Pierce sped left for 15 yards on fourth and 2 to keep the drive alive.
The play was pivotal. Two snaps later, quarterback Kyle Trask hit tight end Kyle Pitts on a 56-yard breakaway touchdown for a 7-0 lead.
The next big special-teams play was more conventional. In the closing minutes of the second quarter, Florida punter Jacob Finn kicked one to the Kentucky 1-yard line.
That moment was easy to overlook, but it was monumental because of the final, game-shifting special-teams snap that followed, once UF’s defense forced Kentucky to go three and out.
Because Kentucky usually punts toward the sidelines, the Gators put one returner on each side. Xzavier Henderson acted as if the punt was coming to him on the right side. At least five Wildcats went his way.
The ball, however, did not. It flew the opposite direction to Kadarius Toney.
“He is a dangerous guy in the open field with the ball in his hand,” Mullen said.
Especially with few Wildcats around to stop him. Toney sliced through what was left of the coverage team on his way to a 50-yard touchdown and a 14-10 lead.
UF’s first punt-return touchdown since September 2018 (Freddie Swain versus Colorado State) was the spark the Gators needed and the moment Kentucky began to crumble.
Before that score, the Wildcats had totaled 174 yards; afterward, the Gators held them to 47.
A Gators offense that failed on three of its first four drives scored on its next three possessions. Two of those were third-quarter Trask-to-Pitts touchdown passes that put the game out of reach and continued their push into UF history.
Trask’s three touchdown passes during his 21-of-27, 256-yard day gave him 34 this year. That’s tied with Rex Grossman for the third most in a season by a UF passer, behind Danny Wuerffel’s 35 in 1995 and his 39 the next year during the Gators’ run to the national title.
If nothing else, these Gators enter December in the College Football Playoff conversation, thanks to three big plays from the often-overlooked third phrase of the game.
• If you were wondering why, exactly, Dan Mullen blew up at defensive coordinator Todd Grantham in the second quarter, you’re not alone. Mullen joked that it was because Grantham put up his Christmas lights before Thanksgiving, and that they “agreed to disagree.” Mullen did, however, praise the way Grantham’s defense shut down Kentucky in the second half.
• Apparently Kyle Pitts heard the trash talk from Kentucky’s defense during the week, like J.J. Weaver saying “he’s just never had J.J. Weaver on him before.” Pitts taunted Kentucky after a defensive pass interference in the third quarter … and again moments later when he caught his second of three touchdowns. Pitts finished with five catches for 99 yards and increased his season total to 11 touchdown receptions.
• We broke press box protocol with a halftime cheer for Pat Dooley and Robbie Andreu. The longtime UF writers were covering their last games for the Gainesville Sun before leaving their positions Dec. 1. Best wishes to both. The beat won’t be the same without them.