GAINESVILLE — In a span of three seconds, Florida linebacker Brenton Cox burst off the line of scrimmage and shoved a Kentucky running back into Will Levis’ side.
That forced the ball away from Levis’ original target. Instead of the quarterback completing another throw, it popped up into the air. Gervon Dexter then corralled an interception that eventually positioned the No. 12 Gators (1-1) for their lone offensive touchdown in a 26-16 loss to the No. 20 Wildcats.
Despite the defeat, coach Billy Napier said he saw “a lot of good on defense.” Seven of Kentucky’s points came on an Anthony Richardson pick-six. Another six stemmed from Richardson’s other interception, which placed the Wildcats inside the 10-yard line. For the second year in row, the Gators largely contained Levis — pegged as a potential first-round pick, and in some cases a top-10 selection, in the 2023 NFL draft — and made strides from their season-opening win.
“We gave them a pick-six,” Napier said. “We gave them a short field after an interception. Two touchdowns in the game. Ultimately, it’s hard to win when you do that.”
Last year, when the Gators traveled to Kentucky, 15 penalties and a late blocked field goal returned for a touchdown spoiled a promising defensive performance. Levis only completed 7-of-17 passes for 87 yards that day. This year, it was a sputtering offense that couldn’t find a rhythm. Richardson said he felt he let Florida’s defense down.
After holding their own against the Utes last weekend — and sealing the game with a late interception — the Gators sacked Levis three times; they totaled five tackles for loss altogether. UF limited Kentucky to 272 total yards and Levis to 202 passing yards. Those were the fewest total yards allowed by the Gators since their game against the Wildcats in 2021.
Their defensive execution started on the first drive, when Levis tried a quarterback run up the middle but a pair of Florida defenders dropped him for a loss. Then, he tried to connect on a wide receiver screen. The Gators forced a 2-yard loss instead.
Later in the first quarter, Justus Boone blitzed unguarded off the end and sacked Levis. A targeting penalty was initially called, but referees overturned it after reviewing the sequence.
The Wildcats still connected on their strikes, though. One came via a 55-yard touchdown pass from Levis to Dane Key. But overall, Napier said he felt the defense made red-zone stops to force field goals and “created some negatives” while affecting Levis, too.
Redshirt senior linebacker Ventrell Miller, who started and made six tackles, left the game in the fourth quarter. Dexter said Miller is like a quarterback on defense — as well as the heart of the unit — and losing him is “kind of like losing a heart.” Napier said Miller was “a little bit banged up” and added he’ll have more of an update in coming days.
The defense still limited Kentucky in the final minutes. With Florida facing a fourth and 6 from its own 24-yard line — with four minutes left — Napier kept his offense on the field and tried to convert. Richardson’s pass fell incomplete, and Kentucky took over. But after a handful of rushes created a goal-to-go situation, Florida’s defense forced a field goal.
Earlier in the frame, they forced a missed field goal in a similar situation.
“He obviously trusted us, trusted the defense to go for it there,” Dexter said. “I feel like we did pretty good in that position.”
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