LEXINGTON (AP) — Kentucky knows its losing streak against Florida will end eventually.
The Wildcats will just to wait until next fall to try and end what is now 27 years of frustration against No. 20 Florida.
Hopes of breaking that streak vanished as the Wildcats struggled to keep up on offense and defense, culminating in Saturday night’s 24-7 loss in their Southeastern Conference opener. Kentucky’s only touchdown came on a 25-yard run by kicker Joe Mansour on a fake field goal attempt in the first quarter.
Though the Wildcats (1-3, 0-1 SEC) kept the Gators out of the end zone in the second half, Florida (3-1, 2-0) was able to move the ball and use the clock. Kentucky was outgained 402 yards to 173, converted just 1 of 8 third-down situations and allowed four sacks of Maxwell Smith.
“We were leaving a lot of plays on the field, but that has a lot to do with Florida and the way they play,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “Give them credit. They beat us. … We need to get back to work.”
Kentucky’s conference road gets even tougher, with a game next week at No. 12 South Carolina and No. 1 Alabama coming to Commonwealth Stadium on Oct. 12.
Making this more difficult for the Wildcats to digest is that they had two weeks to prepare for a game featuring several incentives.
In wanting to beat Florida for the first time since 1986, Kentucky yearned to send a message to the team that hired former Wildcats coach Joker Phillips as its wide receivers coach. Phillips was fired last November after going 13-24 in three seasons.
The coach exchanged friendly handshakes with his former players and athletic director Mitch Barnhart after the game but left with the last laugh as Kentucky couldn’t translate that motivation into the effort needed to beat its second ranked opponent in a four-game stretch.
“I think players played hard the whole game and never quit,” defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. “And that’s something we can build on. We’ve just got to get better at finishing drives and executing.”
Florida’s villains this time against Kentucky were Matt Jones and quarterback Tyler Murphy.
Jones rushed for 176 yards and a touchdown and Murphy threw for 156 yards and a score. Murphy also rushed for a 5-yard TD in his first career start for the Gators, who closed a difficult week on a high note after losing starting quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Dominique Easley to season-ending injuries.
Jones, who had 28 carries, outgained Kentucky by himself while he and Murphy provided all of the Gators’ touchdowns in the first half to extend the longest active winning streak over a major opponent.
That trick play was Kentucky’s only highlight on a night that largely belonged to Murphy and the Gators. But it was interesting.
After Murphy led Florida’s 93-yard, 13-play opening drive ending with Jones’ 2-yard TD run, Kentucky tied it thanks to Mansour, who caught Florida completely off guard on a 42-yard fake field goal attempt.
By the time the Gators realized what was happening, the 6-foot-2, 189-pounder was off and running down the right sideline for a 25-yard TD after holder Jared Leet flipped him the ball over his head.
“We executed perfectly what we practiced in practice,” Mansour said. “We went out on the field and got the perfect look from the defense. Got a perfect snap from Kelly Mason, got a perfect toss from Jared Leet and it just worked.”
That bizarre play had nothing on Jones’ 67-yard run that led to Florida’s second touchdown, the end of which is destined to be replayed on TV and the Internet as an example of how not to help a teammate.
In the clear and dashing right across the field past two Kentucky pursuers, wideout Quinton Dunbar rushed up behind in an attempt to push Jones forward but ended up tackling his teammate at the 12. Murphy simply turned it into a 14-7 lead two plays later with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Trey Burton.
Florida drove 62 yards for another score ending with Murphy’s 5-yard, capping a perfect half in which he completed all 11 passes for 120 yards en route to a 15-of-18 night with an interception.