LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) — The exhibition season is over. Kentucky won the East Division of the Mid-American Conference. The Wildcats finished their MAC season unbeaten, barely threatened, but certainly aggravated.
Let’s get to the next question after Kentucky’s solid 38-17 victory over Eastern Michigan at Kroger Field Saturday night: Can the Wildcats hang back-to-back noogies on perpetually overrated Florida and identify themselves as the team most likely to finish second to Georgia in the Southeastern Conference East Division?
YES — that was my firm answer for nearly three quarters.
Then, UK quarterback Terry Wilson collapsed with an injury to his left leg after he was tackled from behind on a flagged, horse-collar tackle by EMU defensive lineman Turan Rush in the final minutes of the third quarter.
Wilson went down and stayed down.
"We were praying for him," UK linebacker Kash Daniel said. "That's our brother."
Trainers strapped a large black brace from his left thigh to his mid-calf. They assisted him slowly to the back of a golf cart. He waved his right hand several times as he was driven into the tunnel near the Kentucky locker room.
UK coach Mark Stoops said there would not be an announcement on Wilson's injury until an MRI was performed Sunday. But Stoops talked -- and looked -- like a coach who believed that he would be without his starting quarterback, perhaps for the season.
"I think you all know that it doesn't look good," Stoops said. "Anybody that gets carted off on a cart like that and they put his knee in that deal, it doesn't look good, right ... we're sad for Terry and it stinks because it's part of our game. But believe me, we're going back to work with the intent to win a football game next week and that's the way we're going to approach it every week."
So, the question became: Can Kentucky defeat Florida without its starting quarterback?
Not just its starting quarterback, but The Quarterback who stopped the endless losing streak to Florida in Gainesville last season by throwing for a pair of scores and rushing for 105 yards and another touchdown in that memorable 27-16 UK win.
Well, yes (capital letters and bold type removed) — that became my answer at game’s end, especially after Wilson’s replacement, Sawyer Smith, stood confidently in the pocket and threw a sizzling 54-yard touchdown pass to Ahmad Wagner on his first passing attempt as a Wildcat. Smith backed it up by throwing another touchdown pass (2 yards) to Lynn Bowden with 54 seconds left.
"I came here to be the backup quarterback," said Smith, a graduate transfer from Troy. "You never want something like this happen."
Yes, they can beat Florida in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1976 and 1977. Should have beaten them in 2017, too. And 2014. And ...
Yes, the Wildcats have looked like a team that has no reason to flinch against Tennessee (0-2), Missouri (loser to Wyoming), Vanderbilt (0-2) and the other sub-Georgia pretenders in the SEC East.
Smith finished 5 of 9 for 76 yards. He threw four touchdown passes and completed 31 of 44 throws in Troy's bowl game win over Buffalo last December. That's not beating Florida. But the kid is not a novice.
"We're still going to throw the ball," UK receiver Ahmad Wagner said. "We'll rally around him and use what happened (to Wilson) as fuel."
Florida is 2-0. Looked just OK while defeating Miami in the Gators’ season opener.
Failed to score a touchdown in the first quarter before awakening to handle Tennessee-Martin (and co-offensive coordinator Nick Petrino), 45-0, Saturday night in Gainesville. Make a note that Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks had the game of his life, completing 25 of 27 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns.
Let me put it this way: Florida hasn’t shown much to justify the Gators’ pre-season No. 8 ranking in the Associated Press and USA Today coaches’ polls. There's a reason coach Dan Mullen's team was ranked 17th, not 8th, in at least one respected computer poll.
With the human pollsters, the Gators are still living on the decade-old glory of Urban Meyer. Florida had four guys suspended for the Miami game and on Saturday night the Gators had a defensive lineman and defensive back suspended for UT-Martin.
Kentucky has looked solid in back-to-back victories over Toledo and Eastern Michigan. The Wildcats never let the Eagles think, dream or fantasize they had a legitimate opportunity to deliver an upset as a 15 1/2-point underdog.
Jeff Sagarin’s computer numbers are typically close to the opening Las Vegas point spread, especially in the first month of the season. Prior to Saturday night’s games, this was the projected UF-UK number from Sagarin: Florida by 4.92.
By Sunday morning, for the record, the gap increased to Florida by 5.39.
This game was over after the first quarter. Bowden returned a punt to set up a short field and an 8-yard touchdown run by A.J. Rose. The next time the Wildcats had the ball Kavosiey Smoke outran the EMU defense for a dazzling 32-yard score around left end.
Did the Wildcats stall a bit after that?
Yes, they did. After averaging 8.3 yards per snap in the first quarter, Kentucky managed only 3.4 yards per play in the second quarter.
Two touchdowns in the first quarter. No touchdowns and only a field goal in the second quarter. I would not recommend taking a quarter off and trying to defeat Florida.
The third quarter was back to business for the Wildcats. In fact, it was their most impressive drive of the game. They traveled 94 yards in 15 plays, grinding up nearly eight minutes of clock before Terry Wilson danced into the end zone from 2 yards for his first touchdown this season.
Then the defense finally burped. After stopping the Eagles without a touchdown on their first eight drives, they allowed a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, which featured back-to-back EMU pass plays of 38 and 26 (touchdown) yards.
The teams traded touchdown passes in the fourth quarter -- two by UK, one by EMU. The game ended. The rush was on to get to the post-game interview session to ask Stoops and the other UK players about Wilson’s injury.
"We'll run our offense," Stoops said. "Sawyer is very effective. Maybe not quite as dynamic a runner as Terry, but the reads will be the same. If he needs to, he'll pull it and get the aggravating yards and move the ball on their offense."
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