As satisfying a victory as it was, for the Florida Gators and a Swamp full of fans Saturday night, the takeaway of their pulsating defeat of the Kentucky Wildcats was far more about relief.
Junior tailback Matt Jones plowed into the end zone from 1 yard run for the game-clinching score out in the third overtime, as the Gators survived a monumental scare from Wildcats with a 36-30 victory that marked the longest game in UF football history.
The win, UF's 28th straight in the series dating to 1986, appeared in doubt several times -- including the first overtime -- but the Gators (2-0, 1-0) did just enough to get out of their home field alive in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.
“It wasn’t always pretty,” UF coach Will Muschamp said. “We just figured we’d give you guys an extra shot [of football]. Just paying the fans back.”
Free football, edge-of-your-seat style.
Jones, a junior from Seffner, Fla., carried 29 times for 156 yards. Sophomore wide receiver Demarcus Robinson tied Carlos Alvarez’s 45-year-old school record for single-game receptions by catching 15 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns, including a mega-clutch 9-yard score from Jeff Driskel on fourth-and-goal in the first OT.
An incompletion there would have ended the game. Instead, it was Robinson to the rescue to give the Gators another chance.
“I was kind of expecting the ball,” Robinson said. “I just wanted Driskel to give me a chance to make a play.”
Driskel, after hitting seven of his 20 passes in the first half, finished 25 of 43 for a career-high 295 yards and three touchdowns. But it wasn't his arm that ultimately won the game. It was offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's decision to grind out the overtime with Jones, a decision that paid off in the end when Driskel fed Jones the final four carries of the game.
“He's an incredible player,” UF tight end Tevin Westbrook said of Jones.
Added offensive tackle Chaz Green: "We told him, 'We're riding you.' "
UF finished with 532 yards of total offense, including 237 rushing. UK cranked out 450 of its own, a week after the Gators held Eastern Michigan to 125 total yards. All but 81 of the Wildcats' yards came through the air, courtesy of quarterback Patrick Towles, who went 24 of 45 for 369 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.
“It was a difficult loss, as you can imagine,” Kentucky coach Mike Stoops said. “I felt like our players really grew up tonight and really came here to win the game and really believed we were going to win the game the whole way through. You have to give credit to Florida.”
When Austin Hardin's 52-yard field goal sailed wide right at the end of regulation, the two teams went to overtime tied at 20. Kentucky scored on its first play when Stanley "Boom" Williams caught a short pass from Towles and reversed his field to turn what looked like a sure-fire loss into a 25-yard touchdown and 27-20 UK lead.
The game easily could have ended in that period, and looked gloomy for the Gators after Kelvin Taylor lost three yards on third and six from the 6. On fourth-and-goal -- and with the play clock about to expire -- Driskel barely got the snap off and lofted a pass in the far left corner that Robinson skied for and finished the play.
“He’s obviously a playmaker who can win those one-on-one battles,” Muschamp said.
Frankie Velez's point-after pushed things into Overtime No. 2.
Both drives in that one ended in field goals; a 27-yarder by Velez and 26-yarder by Austin McGinnis. It was 30-all.
Kentucky started the third overtime, but Florida's defense amped up, almost coming up with a turnover (Jabari Gorman could not pull in a chance at an interception), but instead forced a 41-yard field goal attempt that McGinnis pushed right, much to the delight of the home crowd.
At that point, it was obvious what the Gators would do with the ball.
“We had a few plays we were sticking to based on the defense,” Green said. “Credit to Coach Roper. We had a great game plan and we tried to do what we could to execute best we could.”
It was nothing fancy. The Gators, with a chance to finish things, gave the ball to Jones four straight times; 3 yards, 16 yards, 5 yards, touchdown!
Thus ended the first triple-overtime game in UF history.
"It was a great feeling," Jones said. "I'd never been part of any game like that."
How it got to that point was nothing short of insane.
What was basically a kicking fest in the first half, turned into a shoot-out in the second. After the two teams combined for 11 punts and three field goals on their first 15 possessions, the lead changed hands four times over the final 5:32 of the third period, each time on touchdowns.
Garrett Johnson (6 catches, wasn't even listed on the Kentucky roster, but the crowd new his name well enough by the end of the third period. A true freshman from Winter Garden, Fla., Johnson touchdowns of 60 and 33 yards on back-to-back drives. Both gave the Wildcats (2-1, 0-1) the lead. Each time, Driskel answered with touchdown drives.
After the first Johnson TD, Driskel took advantage of a personal foul penalty assessed on the kickoff and 43-yard return by Andre Debose to move the Gators 44 yards in three plays, hitting senior tight end Tevin Westbrook for a 10-yard touchdown pass and 13-10 advantage. It was Westbrook's first catch of the season.
But just five plays later, the Gators blew a coverage and Towles found Johnson wide open in the end zone for a 30-yard score and 17-13 lead.
“We definitely saw progress in how we played tonight,” Johnson said.
But the Gators did, too. Muschamp even said in his post-game remarks that a year ago, while UF was struggling through that 4-8 season, there was just no confidence that the offense could hit enough plays to get back in games.
Such is not the case this fall.
“We’re explosive enough offensively to get in a game like that and know we can make some plays,” Muschamp said. “We gave up some things on the back end secondary-wise, but we didn’t blink.”
They just went back to work. Driskel marched his unit 62 yards in eight plays, hitting Robinson for the go-ahead score with 25 seconds to go in the quarter.
On Kentucky's next possession, UF's defense halted the back-and-forth when safety Keanu Neal intercepted a bomb that was tipped and landed in his arms deep in Florida territory.
Once again, Driskel moved the Gators, but pressure from a corner blitz that was troublesome all night forced an incompletion on third down and made UF settle for a 39-yard field goal try by Velez, who earlier was good from 35 and 22, to give his team a six-point lead.
This one missed.
McGinnis banged a 51-yard field goal with 3:52 to play to tie the game at 20.
That's where it stood until overtime.
That wild, wild overtime. Three of them, actually.