Kentucky drove inside the 10-yard line in the final minutes of the first half Saturday, but Florida’s defense made a stand and forced UK to settle for a short field goal.
Following the stop on third-and-goal, UF coach Dan Mullen gave defensive coordinator Todd Grantham an earful on the sideline for the second time that drive. Mullen revealed what the exchange entailed after the game.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Mullen said, “I got home Thanksgiving dinner and we’re neighbors. He had his Christmas lights up before dark and I said, 'We don't put Christmas lights up until after Thanksgiving,’ and he said adamantly, ‘Yes we do,’ and I said, ‘No you don’t.’ So we agreed to disagree.”
Well played, coach.
And from then on, Grantham’s unit did play well after Kentucky’s 14-play, 87-yard drive. It forced a three-and-out on the next series, leading to Kadarius Toney’s punt return TD.
The Gators then pitched a second-half shutout with the Wildcats’ six possessions: two three-and-outs, a turnover on downs and three interceptions.
“I think you get after it just having the different discussions, competitive people,” Mullen said of the exchange with Grantham. “But I think you look at the job that they did, came in at halftime and looked at how Kentucky was trying to attack us. We came in and really kind of shut them down early. We were able to get a lead and then that gets Kentucky out of their whole gameplan of trying to really slow everything down and milk the clock.
“The game is so much about adjustments. I think Todd, we went through that at halftime. Teams are going to come in and have some different wrinkles and different changes and do different things each week. I think our guys came in, made a great adjustment and came out really motivated in the second half. And that was Gator defense. I think they were probably a little disappointed with how they played in that first half.”
Florida faced a 10-7 deficit following Matt Ruffolo’s 22-yard field goal, but the defense responded with back-to-back three-and-outs and then Mohamoad Diabate’s pick. Fellow linebacker James Houston led the Gators with a career-high eight tackles.
“We definitely started off the game kind of slow,” Houston said. “Second half, we made our adjustments. We did what we had to do. The defense came together as a unit. We basically said we’ve got to get three-and-outs. We’ve got to get off the field and get our offense the ball so we can start winning this game and start turning the corner.”
A pair of special teams plays sparked the Gators in the first half after a slow start.
The first came on their opening possession when Mullen called a fake punt from his own 25, moving the chains on fourth-and-2 with Dameon Pierce’s 15-yard run.
“It looked pretty good in practice,” Mullen said of the fake. “It was a good situation to go run it right there, good down and distance. Most good fake punts happen a little bit deeper.
“It’s hard to fake punts sometimes at midfield because on fourth-and-1 they still have the defense sitting there on the field. We looked at the right situation and Greg Knox made a great call in that type of situation.”
Toney’s return was the result of a shanked punt by Kentucky’s Max Duffy, the 2019 Ray Guy Award Winner. Xzavier Henderson was also back for the return and fooled the coverage unit by pretending to field the punt, freeing up Toney for the score.
Another great play design by special teams coordinator Greg Knox.
“It’s one of our different return packages that we have in,” Mullen said. “They have an excellent punter. They kind of do this rollout-to-the-right punt, but when he rolls out to the right, they will punt it right or left. I think a lot of people use two returners to figure out where he is going to punt.”
Toney’s 50-yard touchdown was Florida’s first punt return touchdown since Freddie Swain’s 85-yarder against Colorado State in 2018.
“It was huge,” quarterback Kyle Trask said of Toney’s return. “It gave us the lead going into halftime. At the end of the day, it was definitely a play that had a huge impact on the game. I think special teams did a great job, executing in key moments.”
Punter Jacob Finn had both of his punts downed inside the 20, including pinning the Wildcats at the 1-yard line. Place Kicker Evan McPherson made a 34-yard field goal and missed from 45, but redeemed himself with a 40-yarder in the fourth.
“Our kicking game was really good all day. There was one knock: We missed the field goal. We get used to Evan being automatic, but he missed a field goal,” Mullen said. “Overall I thought it was a really good special teams day and we talk about all three phases being equal. Everyone on the team’s got to understand how important each one of those things is worth.
“A lot of times young players or guys that come into the program say, ‘Hey, what about my reps on offense, what about my reps on defense?’ Worry about your reps and executing on special teams, because those can be game-changing plays and you saw that today.”