With last week’s season-ending injury to Terry Wilson, there was no denying that a backup quarterback would be in the spotlight as Kentucky prepared for the No. 9-ranked Florida Gators on Saturday at Kroger Field.
We just never dreamed that it would be Florida’s Kyle Trask, and not UK’s Sawyer Smith, who would emerge as the most unlikely of heroes as the Gators escaped with an improbable 29-21 come-from-behind-victory in front of a sell out crowd in Lexington.
Smith, a graduate transfer, found his rhythm early in the Kentucky offense and finished with 267 yards and two touchdowns, connecting on his first nine pass attempts. Most importantly, he led the Wildcats to a commanding 21-10 lead through the middle of the third quarter as a second consecutive victory against the Gators seemed imminent.
Things got even worse for Florida when starting quarterback Feleipe Franks was carted off the field with a season-ending ankle injury that was an all too familiar sight for Kentucky fans. It was just a week ago that Wilson suffered the same fate with a torn patellar tendon in his left knee.
Enter Trask, a 6-foot-5 redshirt junior, who stepped in to lead the comeback with three fourth quarter scoring drives, including the go-ahead 4-yard rushing touchdown with 4:11 remaining. Trask was 9-of-13 for 126 yards, while Franks finished the game 12-of-17 for 174 yards with a touchdown and interception.
With Florida leading 22-21, the Wildcats has one final chance when redshirt freshman Chance Poore entered the game for a 35-yard field goal attempt with 55 seconds remaining. The kick was wide right as Florida held on for the win.
Florida added an additional score with 33 seconds remaining as Josh Hammond broke loose for a 76-yard touchdown run as the Gators were trying to run out the clock. Florida outscored Kentucky 19-0 in the final quarter of play.
Florida took an early 7-0 lead on a 15-yard pass from Franks to Freddie Swan. However, Smith and the Wildcats would fight back to take a 14-7 lead into halftime after hitting Ahmad Wagner on a 26-yard strike (14:16) and scoring on a 1-yard run (7:46).
The Gators opened the third quarter with a 32-yard field goal (7:50) and Kentucky would score for the final time as Smith connected with Keaton Upshaw on a 13-yard touchdown pass (5:39) to give the Cats a 21-10 advantage. Florida would then score 19 unanswered points in the fourth quarter on an 8-yard run (12:41), 4-yard run (4:11) and an unexpected 76-yard score to end the game as the Gators were simply trying to run out the clock.
In addition to Sawyer, other key contributors for the Wildcats were Kavosiey Smoke, who led the team in rushing with 81 yards on 16 carries and linebacker Kash Daniel, who led the defense with nine tackles. Receivers Lynn Bowden and Ahmad Wagner also finished with 70 yards each in receptions.
After the game, head coach Mark Stoops and select players met with the media to talk about the hard-fought loss. Here is a recap of everything they said via UK Athletics.
COACH MARK STOOPS: Okay. Obviously very, very difficult loss. Really, you know, feel like our team did some really good things. Fought our way out of a hole early and a few mistakes early, and came back and really played a good football game for a large portion of the game. As I tell our players, that, you know, in the game, there’s an awful lot of plays in the game and you never know which play is going to decide the outcome and there was a bunch in there that will jump out at all of us that go our way or don’t get a penalty, things of that nature, you know, can change the outcome of a game.
It’s situational football. We played very, very good football at times, and in certain situations, we’ve got to get better and execute better. Game comes down to inches. We’re short on the fourth down when we were up 11 and comeback and run it on third down there and end up with six inches short or whatever it was, eight inches short, and missed the field goal.
Comes down a game of inches. You know, that ball goes in, or we get that first down, we’re all sitting here saying that’s one heck of a football game.
It was a quality game. It was a good football game. Two good teams. That’s the ninth-ranked team in the country and our team played -- did some very good things, with a backup quarterback that did a lot of good things. I’m proud of our team.
Defensively, we’re really thin in the secondary. Getting a guy ejected and then getting an injury to Taj really got us thin, and it’s a position we’re already thin at and we got really thin tonight. It did end up hurting us late in the game.
We’ve got to bring some guys along and get them ready. It hurts us with, you know, some of our package when you get both of those guys out. So we’ve got to continue to work on that.
Q. (Question regarding how much losing a few defensive backs early effected the defensive play calling later in the game)
COACH MARK STOOPS: Very much. Very, very much, yeah. Yeah, it really hurt us, and then you know, we were playing in a big group for a while with Jamari playing at the Sam nickel spot and we were getting nickel-and-dimed, as you saw. Put Quandre in there, press it up and play man and get the PI, you know and so you know, it hurts us and as far as where some of the guys were playing and some of the simulated pressures and different things we had, yes, it definitely handcuffed Brad.
Q. Do you feel like your guys committed penalties on those --
COACH MARK STOOPS: You know, I said it last week, and you know, say it again, it’s very difficult. I’m not saying that all the officials made a wrong call. It’s just a tough call. It’s a tough call. You’ve got a chance to win a game, you know, with third and 20 -- what would it have been? I don’t know, third and super long. Targeting.
Something’s got to be done with that rule and the call, and you know, putting laundry on the field there to dictate a game again is tough.
Q. Going back to the fourth and short -- what went into the decision process of using AJ?
COACH MARK STOOPS: Just AJ was in the rotation. He’s our starting back, and you know, we went with AJ.
Q. Have you talked to Chance yet?
COACH MARK STOOPS: I haven’t seen him yet. But you know, he’s -- you’re going to miss some. You don’t want it to be for a game. So you know, he’ll -- he’ll bounce back. There’s a lot of games, you know, a lot of plays out there, that we can all do better.
Q. (Question regarding Florida’s last touchdown)
COACH MARK STOOPS: No, we wanted -- we were in an all-out blitz, in a zero blitz to try to stop him and it got on the perimeter on us. You know, so you know, they have got quality speed there. The guy can go, and got on perimeter and just ran away from us.
But no, we were trying all-out, complete zero blitz and got out on the perimeter for us.
Q. How do you think Sawyer played?
COACH MARK STOOPS: I thought he did some really good things. You know, there’s some plays that we could do over, and you know, there’s some plays that the -- the receivers can help him on, as well, you know.
So it’s just a matter of getting everybody on the same page. I think there’s a lot to build on there. I was proud of the way he went in and played and gave us an opportunity to win this game. Again, you go down and even the last drive, you’re six inches short from still running some plays. We had all three time-outs, so that gave you an opportunity to run a lot more plays there, and get it closer, and anyway.
Q. After a loss like that, what was the message to your guys?
COACH MARK STOOPS: First of all, it’s going to hurt, when you invest in what we invest, it should hurt and it’s going to hurt. We all have to look at it. We always have. It’s the same whether it’s a win or loss; what can we all do better, you know, and you know, just be very open about that, and man up and look at yourself and see the things you could do better and how we can do better, and build on that.
You know, you look at the good things we did, and the bad things, and try to get them corrected and move on, you know, the bad things, but there’s a lot of good things. I was proud -- proud of them, proud of the way they fought. Again, that’s a good football team. It’s a top-ten team. We’re sitting there doing a lot of good things against them.
Q. What happened with Phil?
COACH MARK STOOPS: Phil got hurt in pregame. It was the last play we were going to run. He must have just got his foot planted. It’s a shame. I hope it’s nothing too serious.
Q. (Question regarding allowing multiple fourth-quarter scores and finishing games)
COACH MARK STOOPS: We had an opportunity with a couple plays tonight, and fell just short, and you know, we’ll come back and continue to work, I think on the -- on the one with four or five minutes left, there’s -- there’s some things we could have done better in blocking it, and you know, so that’s -- those are the things we’ve got to look at.
Q. When Franks goes out, how tough is it to quickly adjust to a brand new guy that comes in?
COACH MARK STOOPS: Yeah, we had a good feeling that -- what he was going to do. We knew he was going to throw it, and you know, he did a good job. Again, it’s a bad time for us to be short some of the secondary guys we were.
Q. The fans tonight -- can you talk about the atmosphere?
COACH MARK STOOPS: It was a great atmosphere. Thank them for their support. It was an unbelievable atmosphere. They really supported us and our players really tried hard to play for them. Need to bounce back this week and go on the road and we’ll be back here in a few weeks.
Q. Your second interception, was that a miscommunication there?
COACH MARK STOOPS: The one on our sideline? Yeah, there’s -- there was a miscommunication there, yeah.
Q. Your rush defense played really well tonight outside of the 76-yard touchdown -- only 62 yards -- what can you say about the run defense?
COACH MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I thought that was what gave us an opportunity to win the game was the play, so stout in the run game and at times we were even playing short in the run game. That’s good.
You know, that bodes well for us moving forward, if you could play Florida once, short at times and just mix it in, try to help us with some more coverages and what we were trying to do, you know it looked like we played pretty solid up front.
Q. (Question regarding Florida taking away Ahmad Wagner in the second half)
COACH MARK STOOPS: They do. They do a good job of mixing their coverage and combo and doubling at times. You know, I’m sure we’ll look at the film and see a few plays that we probably say we could have gone back to them. You know, I’m sure that’s probably going to happen, like always, if you could have a do-over, you may do it.
You know -- yeah, yeah, there’s plays that jump out at me, you know, right now that I think about it also, but they do do a nice job of mixing it up. It’s just like on one of the third downs late, we had the wide option we had a lot of success and we hit Lynn in the corner and came and trapped him a yard or two short. The first down play we lose two yards on a slow screen and that hurt us on that drive. Ended up punting a yard or two short, as well.
Q. (Follow up question regarding if the QB should throw the ball to him in coverage anyway)
COACH MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I think you saw that tonight. You saw him make some really competitive catches with tight coverage on him, so I think we’ve done that and we’ll continue to do that.
Q. Will Taj be out for a while?
COACH MARK STOOPS: I don’t know, moving so fast for a while, I just knew it was out.
Q. Were there adjustments made when Franks went down and the secondary primarily -- seemed like the wide receivers before were a lot more open.
COACH MARK STOOPS: Yeah, we touched on that a little bit ago. We had some issues with our depth in the secondary with two guys going down, and it did hurt us with some of the variety of the coverages that we could play, yes.
We certainly were getting nickel-and-dimed and was getting aggravated, but then we had a couple big stops. We had one force the punt and then we had another one and get the targeting.
So it’s pretty easy to focus on that now, you know, but we actually were doing what we could and had some quality stops, and the penalties stopped the one.
Q. You talked about the one miscommunication on the second interception. Do you feel there were other miscommunications you had on other plays?
COACH MARK STOOPS: No, I think it was relatively clean. I mean, there’s going to be mistakes, but there was nothing that I could think of that just jumps out at me.
Q. You have a lot of young, inexperienced players. Is learning how to finish a game part of that, or was that not a factor?
COACH MARK STOOPS: Yeah, definitely, you know, it can be. I mean, I think we’ve won a lot of football games around here, you know, in the last year and -- year and three games, and you know, put -- didn’t finish this one off, and it’s frustrating and it’s hard, but you know, there’s a lot of good in there, as well and we do have to find a way to get it finished off.
Q. When you say something has to be done -- are you speaking generally?
COACH MARK STOOPS: I can’t, you know -- I can’t win in this situation.
Q. Is there leeway whether or not --
COACH MARK STOOPS: I’d rather not comment right now, you know. It’s frustrating.
You know, I think there’s plays -- there’s just plays. You know, it’s one of those deals where if it’s called, it’s going to be upheld if certain things happen in it.
Well, you know, it could be called an awful lot. You know, to have a game decided in that moment, when a guy -- what am I supposed to tell my -- my guys are fighting, clawing, scrambling, trying to get them down and giving everything they got, and you get that called.
#10 A.J. Rose, RB
On how it feels to lose in this way…
“It’s tough. You’re up in the fourth quarter and then not walking away with the W, it’s pretty hurtful. It comes down to a couple of plays we should’ve made and some things we have to get better on defense and change and you just have to move on to the next week.”
On how they are going to prepare for next week…
“We just have to come in and watch film on who we have next week, prepare, get a game plan down, and just go into that game and take what we have from this game and come out with a W. We can’t go backwards; everything is about going forward.”
On what he says to the younger guys as a veteran after a loss like this…
“I just tell them it’s football. You win some, and you lose some. You can’t win every game and even though it was a tough loss and we should’ve won the game, things happen, and things don’t always go your way.”
#14 Ahmad Wagner, WR
On how tough this loss is to swallow…
“This one hurt. We played hard and made some mistakes, but everybody left everything out on the field. I feel like we all wanted it bad, and this one is going to sting, but we just have to get right and focus on the next game.”
On how he thought Sawyer Smith played…
“I think he played well and played aggressive. Obviously, it was his first start for us so probably some jitters or something, but I think he played well. I stand behind how he played and that’s our QB.”
On getting more attention and gaining confidence…
“I feel good. I have great teammates, great offensive line, great coaches, so they make it easier on me. I have so many good players that you can’t worry about one of us. Like I said, my teammates give me confidence and that’s what I like about them.”
#26 Brandin Echols, DB
On preparing for the next game…
“We have to work harder and come with a different mindset than we had last week. We have to involve everybody. It’s going to take all of us to get this win against Mississippi State, so we need to make sure we focus on getting everybody right. We have to keep moving forward and not look in the past.”
On playing a top-10 team…
“We have a lot of potential. We just have to make better decisions.”
#12 Sawyer Smith, QB
On his tackle…
“In high school, I gave up on one like that, I stopped running after the guy. The guy ended up scoring and my coach got into me. Ever since then, my sophomore year in high school, I’ve always run after the guy.”
On his first throw…
“Yeah, we got in a rhythm right there, running a great route. I had good protection. We did all night. I mean that team came in here with 15 sacks, and I think they got to me one time. Everyone around me played really well tonight. They played really hard.”
On the receivers…
“They played hard tonight. They blocked hard, they ran their routes hard, everybody played a really good game tonight.”
On his start…
“The route receivers were running the route, just throwing it to open guys is pretty easy. They ran their routes just like they’ve been running it all week, we made plays, we just didn’t make enough.”
#90 T.J. Carter, DE
On the hard lost…
“It’s a feeling I can’t explain. It’s part of the game, the ups and downs. We just have to get back to the lab Monday. Look where we came up short and correct it. We can’t let this turn into two losses, so we have to respond and fix it.”
On going into the fourth quarter…
“We felt really good going into the fourth quarter. We just got to look at the tape, clean some things up, and we’ll be okay.”
#59 Kordell Looney, DT
On how to bounce back…
“We’re just going to bounce back and come back prepared. The game plan moving forward is just whatever coach wants. Games like this happen. Next time we are going to come more prepared and work harder. That’s all we can do. I told my team we just need to come back next week and work harder. It’s going to hurt, but we will bounce back.”