By FRANZ BEARD
GatorBait Senior Columnist
This was more than a win, this stunning 29-21 comeback from 11 down in the fourth quarter that pooped an all-night party that was just about to begin in Lexington, Kentucky. This was a statement game, a statement that says patience, persistence, loyalty and commitment still haven't gone out of style. The poster child for this marvelous statement of stick-to-itness is one Kyle Trask, the perpetual backup who probably wondered if he would ever get a chance to channel his inner Joe Montana.
Trask thought that moment had come last November when he was teetering on the verge of getting a start following a nice performance off the bench in a game against Missouri where it seemed Feleipe Franks had found rock bottom. His crowning moment was put on hold when he broke his foot in practice on Tuesday prior to Florida's game with South Carolina. While he recovered from surgery, Franks found his mojo and led the Gators to four straight wins including an MVP performance in a riotously good 41-15 Peach Bowl win over Michigan's Fighting Harbaughs.
And this is where the story gets good. Following that late burst of brilliance from Franks and a few glimpses of raw talent that we saw from freshman Emory Jones, the pervading belief was that Trask would enter his name into the NCAA transfer portal in search of a place where he would finally get his chance to prove to everyone, but most importantly himself, that he could play quarterback at a very high level. Actually, that would have been taking the easy way out, but instead of finding a new place to play, Trask elected to stick it out, perhaps a gesture of thanks to the school that gave him an opportunity to come to an SEC school. Not many high school backup quarterbacks are offered scholarships in the SEC, particularly at a school like Florida, which has won three national championships and produced three Heisman Trophy winners.
By remaining patient, by never slacking in his work ethic or daily effort in practice, by finishing up what he started in the classroom by earning his degree from the University of Florida, and by remaining true to his Gator teammates, Kyle Trask finally got his moment. Ironically, it came in a game in which the featured backup was the guy on the other sideline, the one who had moments of brilliance while leading Kentucky to a 21-10 fourth quarter lead. Sawyer Smith was the backup du jour and he was only minutes away from becoming a legend in the minds of all those long-suffering Wildcat fans. They celebrated long into the night a year ago when the Wildcats beat Florida in Gainesville, but this one was going to be in Lexington where an all-nighter was in the works.
Only the party never happened and its pooping had its origins when Franks had his ankle dislocated when bent backward by a 6-9, 310-pound Kentucky defensive tackle. A year ago, Trask's moment disintegrated when he broke his foot. This year opportunity knocked because Franks got hurt, so on a cool, clear night in Lexington, Kentucky there was a role reversal on Kroger Field. Kentucky's legend-in-waiting was outshone by Florida's newly found legend, who, in an abbreviated big stage debut, led a most improbable comeback. It wasn't the quantity of minutes that counted, but the quality of them and in the fourth quarter when the Gators needed something just shy of miraculous, Kyle Trask was the man for the moment.
He threw timely, accurate passes, hitting 9-13 for 126 yards. He hung in the pocket and didn't flinch when the Wildcats brought the house. He bounced back from getting hit helmet first (targeting penalty called against UK) with a 30-yard strike to Kyle Pitts. He looked like a basketball point guard when he drew the Kentucky defense to him then did a two-hand chest pitch to Lamical Perine who blew into the end zone for the first TD of Florida's comeback. Trask ran untouched into the end zone on a quarterback draw for the TD that gave the Gators a 22-21 lead and then executed a jet sweep so perfectly that by the time Kentucky figured out he didn't have the football, Josh Hammond had his shoulders squared, blew through a hole and was off to the races for a 76-yard game-sealing touchdown.
That Trask was nearly flawless in his debut on the big stage with a game on the line was a testament to his patience because there were no guarantees he would ever get a second opportunity to lead the Gators. It was a testament to persistence because only a kid who fully understood the concept of next man up would continue to prepare so well that he was equal to or greater than the moment.
And, only a loyal, committed Gator would have elected to stay in Gainesville for an opportunity to channel his inner Joe Montana instead of channeling his inner Tate Martell and bailing from fear of the competition.
SOME GOOD THINGS
First and foremost, the Gators escaped with a win to go 3-0 overall and 1-0 in the SEC. Maybe it was ugly and sometimes brutal, but you never apologize for an SEC win, particularly when you have to do it on the road and you're missing your best defensive player and your quarterback goes down with an horrendous injury. Despite far too many mistakes, it can be said the Gators won in spite of themselves. But it was a win, which is far superior to the alternative.
Second, Van Jefferson and Kyle Pitts came up very big in the passing game. Jefferson, it seems, is always open so it's simply a matter of getting him the football. Pitts has tight end size and wide receiver speed so he's a mismatch. It's just a matter of getting him the football.
David Reese II was an absolute tackling machine but on consecutive plays with Kentucky needing only a yard to keep a drive alive in Florida territory, he stopped AJ Rose dead in his tracks for no gain. He finished the game with 16 tackles, 13 of the solo variety.
On the jet sweep that gave the Gators the 29-21 lead, Pitts and Lucas Krull gave the blocks at the point of attack that opened the hole that Hammond blew threw threw on his way to a 76-yard touchdown.
Finally, even though the result of this drive was Tommy Townsend's only punt of the night, the fact the Gators were able to drive the ball from the shadow of their own goal post (4-yard line) out to their own 48 put them in position to win a critical field position battle when they needed it most. On first down, Trask threw a 13-yard dart to Jefferson out of the end zone for breathing room. He had a 20-yard completion to Freddie Swain that also was critical. Then when called upon, Townsend flipped the field with a 44-yard punt that landed like a sand wedge with backspin and was downed at the UK eight. Three plays later, Shawn Davis had his second interception of the game that got the Gators going on the go-ahead scoring drive.
SOME NOT SO GOOD THINGS
Kentucky's second touchdown came after the pocket collapsed and Franks was hit from behind. He was trying to throw the ball but when it came out sideways it was ruled a fumble. Franks got hit because he had nowhere to step up since Kentucky's nose tackle had such a good push in the middle.
The O-line had some good moments in pass protection but run blocking again was very poor. Take away that 76 yard jet sweep and a kneel down at the end of the first half and the Gators had 61 rushing yards on 25 carries. That won't cut it against the likes of Auburn, LSU and Georgia.
The Gators absolutely cannot afford injuries in the secondary. Without CJ Henderson to take one side of the field away, Kentucky completed 23-35 passes for 267 yards. The lack of depth and inexperience of backups forced defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to play far more zone than he's accustomed to. The lack of bump and run gave the Wildcats extra cushion to get open early and often.
Florida's guards had real problems handling the likes of Quinton Bohana (6-4, 361) and Marquan McCall (6-3, 365). Until the Gators show they can handle big guys in the middle, it's going to be a blueprint for opponents to shut down the running game and pressure the QB.
Penalties and a whiffed block. Two touchdowns were wiped out by holding calls (one on Keon Zipperer, the other on Jean Delance). Another potential touchdown drive was thwarted on an offensive pass interference call on Perine. On the next play Perine might have scored a TD on a little wheel route out of the backfield except Stone Forsythe whiffed on the block. After Shawn Davis got his second pick in the fourth quarter he was flagged for excessive celebration.
Tennessee (1-2, 0-0 SEC) comes to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium next Saturday for a 12 noon start (ESPN). This was once THE game in the SEC but the Vols have fallen on seriously hard times and while the Gators haven't fallen nearly as far, they're still trying to get back to a championship mode.
Tennessee got a 45-0 win Saturday over D1AA Chattanooga, so the Vols will be feeling better about themselves. A win over the Gators would go a long way toward restoring their sense of football self-esteem so they will come in here feeling that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. That's a dangerous team. No matter how bad they were in their first two games, teams that feel their confidence coming back aren't to be taken lightly. The Gators need to come out of the gate in a take no prisoners mood and make it a point to stomp the Vols while they are down.