Florida football score, takeaways: Anthony Richardson crumbles as No. 12 Gators fall to No. 20 Kentucky

By OnlyGators.com Staff
September 11, 2022
Florida football score, takeaways: Anthony Richardson crumbles as No. 12 Gators fall to No. 20 Kentucky

Image Credit: GatorsFB, Twitter

A chaotic first half gave way to a disastrous second half as the No. 12 Florida Gators wasted all the momentum they had garnered over the first six quarters of the 2022 college football season in a 26-16 loss to the No. 20 Kentucky Wildcats at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida. Despite scoring 13 unanswered points to hold a lead at the break, the Gators imploded on offense as sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson put forward a catastrophic performance in his third career start.

Just seven days after outlasting then-No. 7 Utah and capturing the nation’s attention with the the most notable win in Week 1, Florida should be prepared to see its 26-spot rise in the AP Top 25 assailed as doubts creep in about the team’s potential over the remainder of the season.

Gators head coach Billy Napier was largely outcoached by Wildcats boss Mark Stoops (who became the winningest coach in UK history with the victory) as UF was toothless offensively over the latter 30 minutes of the game. In the end, Florida dropped its fifth straight SEC game dating back to last season, while Kentucky won consecutive games over its SEC East rival for the first time since 1976-77 with victories in three of the last five meetings in the series.

What exactly went down Saturday night as the Gators lost a completely winnable game to the Wildcats? Let’s take a look with some postgame takeaways.

1. ARgh: As was repeated ad nauseum here ahead of the season, Richardson is the straw that stirs the drink for Florida this year; the program will only go as far as he will take it. On Saturday night, he led the Gators to drown in their own offensive ineptitude. Richardson completed just 14 of 35 passes for 143 yards with a 2-point conversion, two interceptions and only 4 yards rushing on six carries. He has yet to throw a touchdown pass across two home games to open the season and struggled Saturday to play with any level of consistency — not that he had much help.

Richardson’s passes were either too high, too strong or nowhere near on target. He missed wide-open pass catchers and saw those he did hit drop key passes early, a development from which he claimed after the game to have never recovered. While Kentucky did get away with two uncalled roughing the passer penalties (including one on the first series that caused him to limp), Richardson said he was fine physically and did not blame his poor play on his health.

“I feel like I let everybody down — especially the defense because I looked everybody on defense in the eyes, told them I got them and would put up points for them, and obviously I didn’t. … I got to play better for the team and the university,” he said after the game. “… We lost, and I feel like it’s completely on me. … I played terrible. I didn’t do anything that would have helped my team. I tried to lead, but I don’t feel like I did that. … I take full responsibility for the loss.”

While Richardson’s overall play was distressing, two decisions in particular may have been the difference between a win and loss. Late in the second quarter with Florida aiming to score after a botched snap on a punt led to a safety by Kentucky, Richardson gave the ball right back to the Wildcats in tremendous field position by throwing an interception on an extremely telegraphed screen pass. He saved a potential pick six with a tackle only to go ahead and give one up on the next drive. Due to a miscommunication with redshirt sophomore running back Nay’Quan Wright, Richardson threw the ball directly to defensive back Matt Ruffalo, who returned it 65 yards into the end zone for the Wildcats’ lone touchdown of the second half.

The loss is hardly all on Richardson’s shoulders, and his accountability after the game was not only admirable but refreshing. Still, his performance was the most disappointing on either side of the field, and given the stakes and expectations, one could argue it was among the worst quarterbacking efforts on Florida Field in recent history. That’s saying something given the Gators’ struggles at the position of late.

“Anthony made mistakes. I made mistakes,” Napier said. “… One thing I know about Anthony: He’s a fighter. He’s going to show back up and work hard to improve. He has that level of commitment to the organization.”

2. Positioned to fail: It is the chief charge of a coach to give his team an opportunity to win the game, but time and again Saturday night, it seemed as if Napier was setting up Florida to fail. There’s no doubt that the players were unable to keep up their end of the bargain, but between Napier’s play calling and in-game decision making, it was difficult to comprehend exactly why certain choices were made.

It started in the first half when the Gators were unwilling to establish the run while simultaneously calling a plethora of screen passes to little success with the ball moving East-West instead of North down the field. As Richardson struggled, Napier appeared to navigate the game even tighter giving his signal caller fewer chances to make major mistakes but also fewer opportunities to make game-winning plays. The vanilla screens continued, the runs were less successful and the offense completely imploded.

Then came the situational calls with Napier first deciding to attempt a fourth-and-3 from the UF 40 with Florida trailing by seven as 9 minutes remained. The Gators were in position to pin the Wildcats back and allow their defense to create chaos as it did most of the game. Instead, Richardson tried to fit the ball into a tight window and Kentucky took over. While UK did miss a 36-yard field goal try, UF lost nearly 3 minutes of clock and started 16 yards back instead of in perhaps far better field position had it punted

Napier stood by his call as he believed the Florida defense was more likely to give up significant yardage and allow Kentucky to chew up the clock; instead, he banked on the Gators having more opportunities to get the ball back. “No question that was the right decision,” he said firmly after the game. This despite the Wildcats being unable to sustain significant drives at any point in the contest.

On the ensuing drive, Florida gained 4 yards on three plays when Napier again went on fourth-and-6 from the UF 24 with 4 minutes left. Richardson came nowhere close to his target and Kentucky added a 26-yard field goal to complete their scoring of 19 unanswered points and seemingly put the game out of reach. This was a more reasonable decision given the shorter clock; however, if the Gators had not made the aforementioned fourth-down call, they would have likely been in better field position to create more options.

“When we go back and look at it, it’s going to be flat-out execution,” said Napier, who attributed that to failures on the part of the coaching staff. “… We just got to do what we’re supposed to do in multiple areas offensively.”

Florida is only two games into the Napier era, but it is impossible to look at Saturday’s game without wondering about the offensive scheme and setup as well as Napier’s coaching philosophy as a whole. Is the head coach really the right person to be the quarterbacks coach and play caller, particularly when the offensive coordinator is a career offensive line coach? Will a coach that abides by the Scared Money Don’t Make Money mantra survive in the SEC if too many such decisions go the wrong way? (Napier was 2 for 2 last week and 0 for 2 this week.) If neither the play calling nor decision making improves through the end of the season, the way Napier has his staff built will certainly come into question.

3. Defense beasted: The offense may have struggled, but despite having its back up against the wall multiple times Saturday, the Gators’ ferocious defense kept the team in the game until late in the fourth quarter. From the first quarter onward, Florida terrorized the Kentucky offensive line. Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Justus Boone registered a monster sack early with senior linebacker Amari Burney following with one of his own on the next drive. Sophomore defensive end Gervon Dexter Sr. was all over the offensive backfield with seven tackles (three solo) and a half sack, though that line does not describe his game impact.

Dexter’s presence turned a potential field goal into a punt, and in the second quarter, he caught a tip-drill fumble by Wildcats QB Will Levis off a sack from redshirt junior edge Brenton Cox. Jr. for an interception that led to Florida’s lone touchdown drive of the game. The Gators hurried Levis five times, compiling three sacks, five tackles for loss and plenty more flat at the line of scrimmage. As it did in the last game, Florida again struggled against the run late only to remain stout when backed up near its end zone.

Kentucky’s lone true offensive success in the game was a 55-yard touchdown pass from Levis to Dane Key early in the second quarter. Redshirt sophomore DB Jalen Kimber was beat in coverage, but the ball fell out of Key’s hands only for him to trap it on his thigh with one palm. Replay did not have an angle to properly review the play, but if it had, the touchdown likely would have been overturned. Other than that, the Gators only allowed two field goals, the last of which was because of the aforementioned fourth-down decision.

4. Would you take 1-1? While Florida’s performance Saturday was disappointing, perspective is needed. If you were told before the season that the Gators would split their first two games against top-10 ranked Utah and top-20 ranked Kentucky, would you have accepted that record? Surely, you would answer in the affirmative. While the offense clearly needs a lot of work, the defense is eons better than it was left last season and special teams has been exceedingly competent save for a couple holding penalties on kickoff returns. Florida even fixed its discipline issues from Week 1 committing just three penalties for 28 yards — all in the first half and two of which were questionable decisions from a mind-numbing officiating crew.

Freshman running back Trevor Etienne again flashed with nine carries for 46 yards, a touchdown rush and a 2-point conversion reception. It was frustrating how little the Gators ran the ball early, but sophomore RB Montrell Johnson Jr. had a breakaway 40-yard run (as part of his 62 yards on seven carries in the game), and both Etienne and Wright were one step away from taking carries to the house. And then there’s redshirt freshman kicker Adam Mihalek who came out of nowhere in the spring game to steal the starting job and finish Saturday 2 of 2 in his career with field goal makes from 39 and 50 (!) yards out.

In other words, while Saturday’s loss was a disaster in a vacuum, it’s hardly a long-term indictment of Napier, Richardson or the program as a whole This Florida team is a work in progress. The roster is nowhere near where it should be from a talent standpoint, and Napier is just getting started in rebuilding the program. These growing pains are common with a coaching change, and a loss to a talented Kentucky team may be tough to swallow, but it’s hardly the end of the world.

5. Odds and ends: The Gators allowed 19 unanswered points to end the game … Florida was shut out in a second half for the first time since 2017 (Michigan) … UF did not score an offensive point in the final 35:49 on Saturday night … Florida is now 54-19 all-time against Kentucky with wins in 39 of the last 43 meetings; however, UF is 2-3 to UK in the last five games after the Gators previously won 31 straight contests from 1987-2017 … Florida is now 20-2 against Kentucky in The Swamp since 1981 … Napier is the only first-year UF coach to lose an SEC opener to a ranked team (3-1) … first-year Gators coaches are now 10-7 in SEC openers … Florida is 7-11 against ranked opponents since 2018 … this was the first time since 2007, second time in the last 70 years and sixth time ever that UF faced a ranked UK team … the Gators have scored in 425 games, an NCAA record

6. What it means: Florida needs talent. It needs experience. And it needs time. Opening a coaching tenure with consecutive wins over top-25 opponents is a tall task for anyone, especially someone like Napier who is in the biggest position of his career with a quarterback who, while immensely talented, was making his third career start Saturday night. As disappointing as the loss to the Wildcats may have been, the Gators still have all their goals in front of them this season, and they are likely to remain in the AP Top 25 when the new college football rankings are released Sunday. It is nowhere near time to worry about Napier, Richardson or the program just because a winnable game was lost in this fashion. Far better teams have lost far worse games to far inferior opponents.

7. What’s next? Florida has a tough showdown with Tennessee ahead in two weeks at Neyland Stadium, but it first gets what should be a get-right game when it hosts South Florida in a third straight night contest in The Swamp to start the season. The Gators are 2-0 in the all-time series with a 42-20 win over the Bulls last year.

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