Hello darkness, my old friend. You’ve come to talk to me again. For the record, you dropped in. I sure as hell didn’t call you.
That dark pall, all-too-familiar to Kentucky fans, settled over Kroger Field again Saturday night labeled as a 29-21 lost to the Florida Gators. It was familiar, but something Kentucky fans hadn’t seen for a while. That’s what happens when you have better players. They win the games they’re supposed to win and every once in a while, one they’re not.
Kentucky wasn’t supposed to win this one. It was more than a touchdown underdog to Ninth-ranked Florida. But the Gators took advantage of some mistakes by a youngster, as Sawyer Smith turned the ball over four times in his first starting role as the UK quarterback.
Still, Smith played well enough to lead his team on a last-minute drive deep into Florida territory. It might have ended in glory; instead, bitter disappointment as Chance Poore mis-fired on a 35 yard field goal inside the final minute.
“I told him, everybody’s gonna be looking at that kick and blaming you,” said junior center Drake Jackson. “I said, ‘But guess what – the play before the kick, we could have gotten it done.’ That’s on us.”
Jackson pointed out that the Cats failed to convert on third-and-two just before Poore’s field-goal miss. A first down there would have put Kentucky several yards closer to the goal posts for the young kicker – and maybe led to a touchdown.
“I told him, pick your chin up,” Jackson said, “this is not your fault. We could have done better. I told him, ‘You’re a young guy – don’t shoulder it all.’ ”
That darkness began to descend inside the final six minutes when Kentucky was called for targeting on the drive that saw the Gators retake the lead. T.J. Carter made what looked like a textbook tackle as he and another Wildcat were in the process of sacking Gator quarterback Kyle Trask, who had come on for an injured Feleipe Franks.
But here came the flag and after a quick review in Birmingham, it was called targeting. Instead of third-and-a-cab ride, it was first down for Florida and the Gators eventually found the end zone to take the lead.
Mark Stoops isn’t allowed to comment on officiating directly, but his indirect comments got through.
“Something's got to be done with that rule and the call,” he said “and you know, putting laundry on the field there to dictate a game again is tough.”
Tough to watch a game just inches from being a potential springboard to another storybook season melt away.
“It’s gonna hurt,” Jackson said, “it’s gonna stink, but the good thing is, that was a talented team we just played. You look and see how many good things we did and that’s nothing we can’t do the rest of the year.”
Which means they’ll take 24 hours to mourn the loss and then set about looking ahead to the next one. Because with a road trip to Mississippi State up next, the Wildcats have to make sure one loss doesn’t become two.
“That’s where the leadership comes in to play,” Jackson said. And he was talking about the veteran players, not the coaches. “Myself personally, I’m going to have to help take control of the offensive line room.
“Guys on the whole team are going to have to step up our leadership and make sure the team as a whole doesn’t sulk over this. You go and look, we did so many good things.”
This one will be tough to swallow for the Big Blue Nation. It’s a process that began as time was draining away Saturday night, the stunning turnaround becoming a certainty.
The deafening noise and raucous cheers had been replaced by the sounds of silence.