CRAWFORD | Florida's streak lives, but SEC opportunity still kno - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Florida's streak lives, but SEC opportunity still knocks for Kentucky

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AP photo. AP photo.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) — Early last week, reports surfaced that a three-foot long alligator had been spotted in Skaggs Creek, a tributary of Barren River Lake in Western Kentucky. 

We should’ve known then. The Florida Gators aren’t as good as they used to be. But they aren’t going anywhere. They’re still here. And after last night’s 14-9 victory over Kentucky in Commonwealth Stadium, their 29-game winning streak over the Wildcats — the longest in major-college football — remains intact.

“Everybody was saying Florida is down and out,” UK senior defensive lineman C.J. Johnson said. “But at the end of the day Florida is still Florida.”

Maybe, maybe not. But Florida still has Kentucky's number. The Gators scrawled it on a bathroom stall in UK's renovated stadium, after the words: "For a good time, call . . . "

“Florida’s program certainly isn’t what it once was,” Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi wrote after the game. “But the last vestige of Gator dominance still lives; the one remaining crumb is still there on the plate of a program that once gorged itself on greatness.”

This much is certain: The Wildcats remain Gator bit. They dropped a touchdown pass on their first series. Three plays later Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves picked a pass off and returned it 53 yards to set up a touchdown. There were trips inside the red zone that ended in field goals instead of touchdowns. There was UK wideout Ryan Timmons, on the Wildcats’ final offensive play of the game, being shoved to the ground while running a pass route. There was no call (stop me if you’ve heard this before) and the pass was intercepted.

That first exchange — dropped touchdown, interception, touchdown the other way — helped provide half of Florida’s scoring on a night when the Kentucky defense played its best game of the season and held Florida to fewer yards (275) than it has allowed the Gators since the Wildcats last won in the series under Jerry Claiborne in 1986.

A capacity crowd of 63,040 showed up at the renovated Commonwealth Stadium eager to see the nearly three-decade-long streak snapped, and not without some reasonable expectation. On paper, Kentucky had the better, more experienced quarterback, better running backs and more explosive receivers. Somebody forgot to show freshman quarterback Will Grier that paper. He was steady and made plays with his feet and throwing the ball. UK’s offense, despite periods of potency in wins over Louisiana Lafayette and South Carolina, never got into a rhythm.

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Towles completed only eight passes in the game. He wasn’t helped by his receiving corps — which dropped a handful — nor by his offensive line, which allowed six sacks (though a couple came when Towles didn’t dump the ball quickly enough).

“I’m definitely missing balls that I usually hit and there is no excuse for that,” Towles said. “We have to execute better. I have to execute better if we want to consistently win. I didn’t execute consistently tonight.”

The quarterback takes the heat when the offense doesn’t move, but the heat in this one should be shared. Not only did Towles not get a great deal of help from his receivers or line, he didn’t get much from the play-calling. Kentucky’s longest run from scrimmage was a 33-yard Towles scramble that breathed a little life into the offense late in the third quarter. He can’t make a living doing that, but might need to do it more to keep defenses honest.

Kentucky also needs more Boom. Running back Boom Williams accounted for a third of the Wildcats’ yardage (80 yards on 16 carries) but just under a quarter of their plays. He averaged five yards per touch. The rest of the team averaged 3.2 per touch. In a game like this, he needed to touch it more. He did get banged up on the last play of the first half, so perhaps that was a factor. But after Kentucky handed him the ball on 3rd and 14 and he ran for 23, he wasn’t even on the field for the next two third down plays.

Kentucky offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said, “We’ve got to have a better plan. We’ll coach better. We’ll play better. That’s 100 percent on me. . . . We win that game if the offense plays a little better.”

It was a missed opportunity. Call it what it was. This wasn’t like in past years, when UK was going to need an extraordinary effort to win. The teams are no longer that far apart. All the Wildcats needed to do was simply execute. That they didn’t is what bothered Stoops the most.

“We didn't play a clean enough football game,” he said. “We talked about it all week. We just needed to play a good, clean football game. And play to our capabilities the best we can. And we didn't do that tonight.”

But while the Florida streak remains intact, it doesn’t mean that UK remains where it was.

Florida coach Jim McElwain knows a little something about Kentucky. He was an assistant coach at Louisville under John L. Smith in 2000, 2001 and 2002. He was at Louisville for wins over Kentucky in 2000 and ’02, and for an upset Kentucky win in ’02. In his years as an assistant at Alabama, he’s watched Kentucky’s fortunes. Let’s face it. As an assistant who wanted to become a head coach, he kept an eye on a lot of possible destinations.

“This is not the same, old Kentucky,” McElwain said repeatedly last week. He reiterated that on Saturday.

“They’ve done a heck of a job here at Kentucky, give them all the credit in the world when it comes to getting this program where it is,” he said. “They’re going to be a force to be reckoned with for many years to come.”

This team isn’t far away from ironing things out. And the SEC East isn’t what it usually is. Missouri visits on Saturday, and the Tigers got all they could handle from Connecticut in a 9-6 win Saturday. There are winnable games, and some big opportunities, down the schedule. Is anyone as fearful of Auburn as they used to be? 

The Wildcats will have their chances. They’ve played two home games. They have six remaining. There’s no call to go away from Towles just now. But the Wildcats do need to put more of the offense in the hands of their best player. A little more work. A little more Boom.

More downhill running. Fewer negative plays. More possession time to give the defense more of a break. 

“We'll have another great opportunity right here next week and I want everybody to keep the faith and come on back and support this team,” Stoops said. “We're going to go back to work on Monday and look to improve.”

The Gator isn’t off Kentucky’s back just yet. But the Wildcats needn’t carry the additional weight of past failures. The SEC isn’t as fearsome as it has been in past seasons. And this team remains poised to make progress.

Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.

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