Missed Opportunities on Cats' Minds after Loss to Florida

Commonwealth Stadium, hosting its first big game since a $126 million renovation and sold out for the second time in a row, was ready to explode.

Nearly all of the 63,040 fans in attendance were in the seats for a raucous pregame, and many of them were at the Cat Walk two hours prior, primed to cheer UK on to a win over Florida. To back it up, Kentucky’s defense forced a three-and-out and give the offense a chance at an early lead.

Three plays later, Patrick Towles tried to take that chance, heaving a deep ball to the end zone. With two defenders surrounding him, Dorian Baker found room to make a would-be 41-yard touchdown pass, but he couldn’t reel it in.

“That would have been a great start,” Mark Stoops said. “It didn't happen.”

Not only did that not happen, but moments later Towles threw an interception that Vernon Hargreaves returned 53 yards to set up a Gator touchdown. The tone for a 14-9 defeat that sent Kentucky to 2-1 (1-1 Southeastern Conference) was set.

“It's a lot to do with momentum and just like we talked about, that missed opportunity early set us back,” Stoops said. “And then you put the interception behind it and we played tentative the rest of the night.”

In past years, that tentativeness might have led to a blowout, but these Wildcats have taken a step forward in talent. Instead, the Cats were left unable to capitalize when opportunities to end a 29-game losing streak to Florida presented themselves.

The first such chance came on the possession following the Florida touchdown, as UK drove deep into Gator territory. Things would stall from there with back-to-back runs for no gain and a Towles incompletion on third down before Austin MacGinnis knocked in a short field goal.

Later in the first half – after UK kept the deficit at 7-3 with a Marcus McWilson pass breakup in the end zone and blocked field goal by C.J. Johnson – the Cats narrowly missed out on preventing a Gator touchdown. Florida faced third-and-8, but converted with a seven-yard completion by the slippery Will Grier and a six-yard run by Kelvin Taylor. Soon after, Taylor punched in the final touchdown of the evening from three yards out.

“We had our opportunities,” Stoops said, “didn't execute what we needed to, gave up a big third down that gave them a fourth and a few inches and they converted that.”

The Cats, however, would not quit, especially not their defense.

“I feel like we played good,” said linebacker Josh Forrest, who had eight tackles. “We still had things that we did wrong. We gave up points so there were things that could have been better, but I feel like there was a lot of great effort.”

With the defense stymieing the Gators to the tune of 245 total yards and pitching a second-half shutout thanks in part to a clutch end-zone interception by J.D. Harmon, UK’s offense had chances to turn the game with each passing possession.

Florida, however, had a pass rush that tormented Towles throughout. He was sacked six times, but he still managed to lead a drive inside the Gator five-yard line as time expired in the third quarter. UK, however, failed to punch it in when Towles’ pass to Blake Bone sailed just high on a slant pattern.

“I felt like we had it,” offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “Really when I even called the play I thought it was going to be a touchdown, but it just didn’t happen.”

MacGinnis again converted a short field goal and later added another from 45 yards to bring UK to within 14-9, needing only one touchdown for the win. The Cats would get two cracks at it, including their final possession which began with 2:26 left on their own 20, but they were left ruing more missed opportunities.

“I told them that we were going to do all we can to score a touchdown,” said Towles, who completed 8-of-24 passes for 126 yards. “I gave it all I had, threw everything out there, threw everything I could, gave all I had, but it wasn’t enough. Luckily for us we’ve got nine more chances.”

That’s exactly the mentality the coaching staff is looking for. The staff also expects the tentativeness plaguing the Cats against Florida to disappear for next Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. matchup with Missouri.

“Look, we got beat,” Dawson said. “Everybody could have done better, including myself. I’m the main one. I will do better and all those kids’ mentality is going to be fine. Those kids are resilient, they’ll come back tomorrow ready to work and we have to put together a plan and go execute it next time.”

The idea is that the Cats will create plenty more opportunities for the Commonwealth crowd to erupt, and capitalize this time.

“They're young guys with a lot on their plate that have given us a great effort,” Stoops said. “And they will continue to give us a great effort. So we'll get back to work and improve. We'll have another great opportunity right here next week and I want everybody to keep the faith and come on back and support this team and we're going to go back to work on Monday and look to improve.”

“That’s all we can do,” Forrest said. “This game is gone, behind us, nothing we can do about it now. It’s on to the next.”