By Matt Overing | Football beat writer
The University of Florida’s defense limited UK’s offense to 48 yards on the ground as the Gators topped the Cats 24-7 on Saturday in UK’s SEC opener.
Florida extended its 27-year winning streak over UK in ex-UK head coach Joker Phillips’ first game against the Cats since his dismissal last November. Phillips, who is now the wide receivers coach for the Gators, hugged several of his former players after the game.
No. 20 Florida, with first-time junior starting quarterback Tyler Murphy, finished with 402 yards of total offense, more than half of which came on the ground.
After an interception and 49-yard return by UK sophomore linebacker Josh Forrest, the Cats had the ball in Florida territory with an opportunity to stay within one score of the lead, down 21-7 in the third quarter.
But UK couldn’t move the ball against Florida’s defense. The drive ended when sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith was intercepted in the end zone by Florida freshman cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. The Cats failed to get any closer to the opposing end zone.
UK head coach Mark Stoops said Florida (3-1, 2-0 SEC) set the tone early.
“Right from the opening drive, they kind of set the tone of what the night was going to be like,” Stoops said.
Florida drove 93 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive, capped by a two-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Matt Jones. Murphy went 4-for-4 through the air for 33 yards on the Gators’ first drive.
Murphy finished the game with 156 yards passing and a touchdown, connecting on 15-of-18 throwing attempts. He also ran the ball seven times for 36 yards and a touchdown.
UK (1-3, 0-1 SEC) answered with a 75-yard drive, capped by a 25-yard run by senior kicker Joe Mansour off of a fake field goal attempt. Mansour knocked in the extra point to tie the game, 7-7.
UK senior running back Raymond Sanders said the team was excited after Mansour outran the Florida defense to the endzone.
“We were proud that he got the touchdown,” Sanders said. “They had been working on that play (in practice), and they did it to perfection.”
On the next Florida possession, freshman kicker Austin Hardin missed a 53-yard field goal, giving the Cats a chance to take the lead with the ball at the UK 36-yard line. UK went three plays and out before punting, gaining just two yards for the drive.
Florida then drove 79 yards on three plays for a score. Jones reeled off a 67-yard run, and Murphy completed a nine-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Trey Burton, which put the Gators in the lead at 14-7.
After another UK three-and-out, Florida drove 62 yards for another score. Murphy ran the ball into the end zone from five yards out to push the Gators lead to 21-7.
Stoops said Florida dominated the line of scrimmage.
“Give Florida credit — they did what I was worried about going into the game,” Stoops said. “They really controlled both lines of scrimmage the entire game.”
At the half, Murphy completed all of his 11 pass attempts for 120 yards and a touchdown. He added 20 yards and a touchdown on four carries.
UK started the second half with the ball and went three-and-out.
“We cannot play behind the chains,” said offensive coordinator Neal Brown. “Negative plays are what hurt us on offense.”
Struggles on third down persisted throughout the game, as UK went 1-for-8 on third-down conversions.
After Smith threw the interception to Hargreaves with 3:27 left in the third quarter, Florida orchestrated a 64-yard rive that took 7:45 off of the clock. The drive ended with a 33-yard field goal by freshman kicker Austin Hardin.
Florida ran the final 4:14 off of the clock to end the game after the Cats turned the ball over on downs.
Jones finished with 28 carries for 176 yards and a touchdown. Time of possession favored the Gators, 38:09 to the Cats’ 21:51.