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Kentucky, 31 and Done

By Matt Smith
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Sometimes, things happen when you least expect them.

Kentucky seemingly had much better opportunities in recent years to defeat Florida for the first time since 1986. The Wildcats were two and three-point underdogs in the Gators’ past two visits to Commonwealth Stadium, but they lost both in heartbreaking fashion. Going to Gainesville as a two-touchdown dog on Saturday night did not seem promising for a team carrying so much mental baggage in this series.

Sometimes, things happen when you least expect them.

After 31 years, 9 months, and 24 days, Kentucky has again defeated Florida. The Wildcats offense was dominant on the ground to reach scoring range, and then quarterback Terry Wilson did the rest of the work, tossing two touchdown passes and running for another in Kentucky’s 27-16 win in The Swamp.

Florida’s offense was off rhythm all night long, as Kentucky’s defense held them to just six points in the second half and to just 345 yards for the game.

Mark Stoops has checked off many boxes in his six seasons as head coach in Lexington, but this one may be the sweetest of all, given that none of the five men that came before him had a win over Florida on their resume.

Meanwhile, Florida head coach Dan Mullen, who was 8-1 against Kentucky during his time as Mississippi State head coach, now has the dubious distinction of being the Gators coach when the streak ended, let alone the fact that it came in just his second game at Florida.

Florida has plenty of questions. Is Feleipe Franks a good enough quarterback for this team to get to eight wins? Is the veteran offensive line showing any progress? Why was Jordan Scarlett not given a heavier workload? Mullen has some soul-searching to do, now at a place where just going to bowls every years isn’t anywhere enough.

The story of the night though were the winners. Benny Snell, the self-appointed best running back in college football, was a beast, gaining 175 tough yards on 27 carries, including the run that all but clinched victory with a little over two minutes to play. Wilson, who had yet to show he could throw effectively and consistently enough to be a successful SEC quarterback, proved that the offense can indeed be multi-dimensional with him under center, completing 11 of 16 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns.

Defensive end Josh Allen, who left the game temporarily with cramps in the second half, put the final nail in the coffin, stripping Franks on Florida’s final possession – a play that ended in a meaningless Kentucky touchdown as the clock hit zero.

How does Kentucky respond to the streak finally being over? The best news is that next week brings FCS opponent Murray State to Lexington. A classic letdown situation has virtually no chance of ending in disaster. Then come suddenly winnable home games against Mississippi State and South Carolina.

There’s a path to eight wins in the regular season for the first time since 1984. That was two years before the last win over Florida, so Stoops might still have a card to play this season that would trump what he and his team accomplished on Saturday night.

Florida might be nothing more than a .500 team, but that doesn’t matter in Lexington. This was Kentucky’s biggest win since upsetting No. 1 LSU in 2007. It’s bigger than ending a 26-game losing streak to Tennessee in 2011. It’s bigger than knocking off Lamar Jackson and Louisville on the road in 2016. This was for all the Wildcats who came before and always had the door slammed shut, no matter what level of weaponry they tried to use to break in.

With 1986 now just a footnote, 1984 becomes the next milestone for Stoops and the Wildcats. Two wins down, six wins to go. From someone who projected the Wildcats to go 4-8 this season, there might be more things happening this season when I least expected them.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.