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SHANE SHACKLEFORD: Wildcats Lose Late Lead, Fall to Gators

If you know me, you know that I am an avid reader. Have been all of my life. So as I was watching the Kentucky Wildcats give up a fourth-quarter lead and eventually lose to the No. 9 Florida Gators 29-21 Saturday night, the following quote came to mind:


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

-- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

I feel like there isn’t a more fitting quote to describe the UK performance. The Cats experienced some great moments, in the beginning, only to experience some low points at the end of the matchup.


In light of our quote, instead of grading the Cat performance in our conventional way, let’s assess the game in terms of “The Best of Times” and “The Worst of Times.”


The Best of Times

As a starter, UK quarterback Sawyer Smith had a really good debut for the Cats in relief of injured starter Terry Wilson. The redshirt junior transfer went 13-of-35 for 267 yards and two touchdowns.


However, Smith did throw three interceptions, two in the decisive fourth quarter. But Smith did have his bright moments. Consider the following:


Smith completed his first nine passes of the game before his first incompletion with 1:59 remaining in the second quarter.


Smith is the second UK quarterback since 1993 with two passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown in his first career start. The other to accomplish that was Jared Lorenzen vs. Louisville in 2000.


His 267 passing yards are the most for a UK quarterback in his first career start since Patrick Towles vs. UT Martin in 2014 (377).


The UK receivers had a big night collectively against the Gators. Junior athlete Lynn Bowden Jr. caught seven passes for 70 yards, helping to cement his place among the best receivers in UK history:


Bowden now has 104 catches in his career, becoming the 17th player in Kentucky history with at least 100 receptions in his career. He also has 1,156+ career receiving yards, moving past Dorian Baker for 25th place on the UK career receiving yardage list. He is the first UK player with at least six receptions in each of the first three games since James Whalen in 1999.


Bowden has also caught a pass in 17 consecutive games. He is the third quickest to 100 career receptions in terms of games played (29 games). Anthony White accomplished the feat in 21 games and Derek Abney did it in 22 games.


Senior WR Ahmad Wagner caught three passes for 70 yards and a touchdown.


Senior TE Justin Rigg had five receptions for 50 yards, both career highs.


Freshman TE Keaton Upshaw had his first collegiate touchdown with a 13-yard catch in the third quarter.


Redshirt freshman RB Kavosiey Smoke rushed a game-high 16 times for 81 yards. The 16 rushing attempts were a career-high.


Junior RB Asim “AJ” Rose rushed 14 times for 46 yards.


The UK defense had some positive moments as well, especially early in the game.


The defense spent most of the night having to defend in the red zone and for the most part, held their ground and made things tough on the Florida offense. The Cats forced an early interception by UK defensive back Ty Aijan, a sack and forced a fumble by Kordell Looney, and five tackles for losses.


The Worst of Times

The Cats got tagged for targeting twice Saturday night, losing defensive back Yusef Corker and defensive lineman TJ Carter for the game.


The Cats were penalized nine times for 79 yards, five of which were of the 15-yard variety.


The UK secondary showed its youth and inexperience late in the game, allowing UF backup quarterback Kyle Trask (also in relief of starter Feleipe Franks who was injured during the game) to get his footing and complete several passes to Gator receivers to help Florida come back from down 21-10 to take their first lead 22-21 in the fourth quarter.


UK kicker Chance Poore missed a 38-yard field goal with 58 seconds to play that would have given the lead back to the Cats. The Gators took possession and scored a late touchdown to extend their lead to 29-21.


The two interceptions Smith threw in the fourth-quarter squelched UK drives that could have extended the Cats' lead.


On fourth and one at the Florida 38 in the fourth, The Cats went for it on a wildcat-formation run by Rose that was stuffed. The Gators took possession and got the go-ahead score.


Overall, it was a Jekyll-and Hyde performance for the Cats. Three things, however, are apparent.

First, UK can win with Smith at the helm. Kentucky was able to move the ball effectively for most of the game through the air with Smith, giving the Cats a chance to upset the Gators.


Second, it’s apparent that Smoke is the best back in the UK offensive backfield. Smoke gives the Cats the big-play ability that is needed to allow Smith to have the chance to distribute the ball to the Cat receivers.


Third, and maybe most importantly, the UK offensive and defensive coordinators have to continue to stay aggressive in their play calling. When the Cats were the aggressor early in the game, they had the Gators on their heels and played well.


In the second half, the Cats seemed to be content to run the clock on offense and play a prevent-type defense and allow the Gators to chip away at the UK lead and eventually overtake them.


Up next for the Cats is a trip to Starkville to visit the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Last season, Kentucky rode an epic performance by Benny Snell to defeat the Dogs 28-7 in Lexington. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. ET and televised on the SEC Network.


Shane Shackleford is a regional sports columnist from Speedwell, Tenn. You can follow him on KySportsStyle.com magazine, A Sea of Blue, social media, and local media outlets.