The Gators entered this past weekend with a 29 game winning streak against Kentucky, knowing how awesome it would be to extend it to thirty.
As it turned out, they had nothing to worry about. Win number 30 was something of a formality.
The Gators out gained Kentucky by over 400 yards and picked off Drew Barker three times en route to a lopsided 45-7 win on Saturday to extend the nation’s longest active winning streak over the same opponent to… let’s say it again… 30. That puts the Gators at 2-0 on the year, and also back into the AP poll at #23.
The Gators’ biggest scare came early, when Luke Del Rio apparently fumbled the ball into the hands a Kentucky player, who took it back for a touchdown. Officials reviewed the play and declared it was an incomplete pass- and there went Kentucky’s chances.
Florida missed a field goal on that first drive, but scored touchdowns on six of their next nine to erase any ideas Kentucky may have had about an upset. Along the way, Del Rio looked fantastic, particularly on a 78 yard bomb to Antonio Callaway late in the first quarter. He missed a similar throw against Massachusetts, but redeemed himself by hitting a streaking Callaway right in stride. That made the score 14-0, and given the way Kentucky’s offense struggled, it felt like the dagger.
Up until the Cats’ last drive of the game, for which Jim McElwain sent in his backups, Kentucky produced just 84 yards of total offense. The Cats’ starting quarterback, Drew Barker, attempted ten passes on the day, and completed just half of them. That’s bad enough. Even worse, however, is that three of the five passes he connected on were completed to Quincy Wilson, Jalen Tabor and Marcus Maye, who of course play for Florida, and that gives him the dubious distinction of completing more passes to his opponents than his own teammates.
Kentucky’s defense was similarly dreadful. Much maligned for blowing a 35-10 lead against Southern Miss in a 44-35 loss, Mark Stoops’ defense picked up right where it left off. Del Rio threw for more yards against the Wildcats than any Gator quarterback had thrown for against an SEC opponent since Chris Leak against Arkansas in 2004. Even more embarrassing, up until their touchdown in garbage time, Kentucky had surrendered 79 consecutive points going back to the USM game.
And now, the kicker: the 564 yards Florida finished with was the most they’ve racked up in a single game against a Power Five conference team since New Year’s Day of 2010, Tim Tebow’s final game as a Gator, in the Sugar Bowl against Cincinnati.
So now let’s transition from the numbers into how the Gators looked. And the answer to “how did they look?” is “pretty good, but let’s proceed with caution.” I’ll write about this in greater detail later in the week, but it’s worth mentioning that at least for a week, everything looked fixed. The Gators looked like an entirely different football team than the one that struggled to beat UMass.
Del Rio looked poised, collected and confident throughout the duration of the game. He was never flustered and rarely even pressured, instead displaying the calm demeanor fans have heard about all offseason in dissecting the Cats’ defense with whichever type of pass he felt like throwing.
Part of what made Treon Harris so bad was that he never seemed to know what kind of ball to throw on a given situation, and Del Rio appears to have a strong understanding of this. His 78 yard bomb to Callaway was a beautiful rainbow that fell perfectly into Callaway’s hands. Later, he saw Brandon Powell pop open on a quick slant route in the end zone, and zipped a laser into his hands. If Del Rio tries to fling a bullet to Callaway, the ball probably gets deflected or even intercepted because the space Callaway has created is nullified by the lack of downward space the pass has to continue on its path beyond the defender. If Del Rio tried to lob one to Powell on the slant, the ball’s extra flight time gives defenders time to close the gap and make a play on the ball.
The other improvements the Gators made were all arguably at least due in part to Kentucky’s ineptitude, (the better blitz pickup, stronger offensive line play in general/more success on the ground, and forcing turnovers) but the brain power Del Rio demonstrated is a real indication of things to come. You don’t suddenly forget which type of ball needs to be thrown in a certain situation; once you’ve got the scenarios plugged into your head, you have that skill for life. The quality of defense will get better, but Del Rio will still have brains on his side, and should continue to make good decisions- both in terms of where and how to throw the ball.
So if there’s one thing to take away, remember this. Florida’s 30 game winning streak over Kentucky is nice, but it won’t help the Gators much the rest of the way. What will help is finally having a true leader at the quarterback position, and it looks as though Jim McElwain has finally found one.