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Florida Gators lose to Kentucky as Anthony Richardson regresses

Anthony Richardson throws a pair of interceptions, including a pick-six, in his second home start.
Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, foreground, throws a pass during the first half against Kentucky on Saturday night.
Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, foreground, throws a pass during the first half against Kentucky on Saturday night. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Sep. 11|Updated Sep. 11

GAINESVILLE — Florida coach Billy Napier spent his first offseason with the Gators dampening the hype around quarterback Anthony Richardson.

No. 12 Florida’s 26-16 loss to No. 20 Kentucky on Saturday night showed us why.

Richardson completed 40 percent of his passes and threw a pair of devastating interceptions in an ugly defeat — Florida’s third in its last five meetings against the Wildcats (2-0, 1-0 SEC).

“I feel like it’s completely on me,” Richardson said.

The transcendent athleticism that let Richardson burst onto the national scene in last week’s upset of Utah was non-existent. A week after rushing for 106 yards, three touchdowns and some of the most exciting plays Ben Hill Griffin Stadium has seen since Tim Tebow, Richardson carried the ball six times for 4 yards.

Though Richardson took a low hit early, he said he was fine physically. Instead, his reduced workload came down to two factors: a sound Kentucky defense that tried to limit Richardson’s abilities and a concerted effort by Richardson to air the ball out.

“I’m a quarterback,” Richardson said, “so I told myself I was going to try to pass the ball more.”

He did. It didn’t work (14-of-35 for 143 yards).

The issues started immediately when Richardson overthrew a pair of receivers on the first drive.

“My confidence got shot,” Richardson said.

Florida head coach Billy Napier and the No. 12 Gators lost at home to No. 20 Kentucky.
Florida head coach Billy Napier and the No. 12 Gators lost at home to No. 20 Kentucky. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

Things snowballed, culminating in a pair of disastrous picks. The first came at the end of the first half, when UF (1-1, 0-1) faced third down inside its 30. Richardson moved right on a bootleg but didn’t get deep enough. Rather than throw it over 6-foot-5 Kentucky linebacker Jordan Wright, he tried to side-arm it past him. Wright intercepted it and returned it inside the 10 to set up a Kentucky touchdown.

The second interception was equally costly and, worse, eerily familiar.

Late in the third quarter, Richardson threw right to Na’Quan Wright, a running back flexed out at receiver. Except Wright wasn’t in the area; cornerback Keidron Smith was. Smith returned it 65 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.

The interception from a miscommunication was reminiscent of one of Richardson’s worst plays last year, against Georgia. He forced a throw to a running back flexed to the right side in that one, too, (Malik Davis), which Nakobe Dean turned into a pick-six.

“Same thing,” Richardson said.

That’s the concerning thing about Richardson’s performance. The issues on display in front of a sold-out crowd of 89,993 weren’t new.

When he missed passes last year and last week, he usually missed them high, or put too much zip on them. Interceptions were a recurring issue, especially under pressure. He forced a bad one against Vanderbilt and one against LSU. Napier pointed out after the Utah game that Richardson probably should have had another, too, had a defender not dropped the bad throw that Richardson sailed.

Richardson entered the season with seven career passing touchdowns and six interceptions. The totals are now seven and eight.

Napier stressed two other stats in the offseason as he tried to ease the pressure on his most important player: one career start and 39 career completions (which Gator greats do in one game).

Through that lens, maybe Richardson’s struggles should have been expected. The sensational opener against Utah looked like his sensational performances against Florida Atlantic and USF. Saturday looked like the Georgia loss. That’s how it goes for young quarterbacks. High highs and low lows.

“How many lessons does this guy learn in an actual game setting?” Napier said. “I think he’s going through that.”

Unfortunately, he’s going through that with a flawed roster. The offensive line that got pushed around too much last year? It leaked too much Saturday, especially when right tackle Michael Tarquin left with a lower-body injury. The receivers that were a preseason liability but played well against Utah? They dropped a handful of passes.

Richardson, to his credit, accepted the blame alone, though there was plenty to go around. That, at least, is one sign of growth on a night where the Gators’ shining star crashed back to earth.

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