GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Kentucky coach Mark Stoops surpassed Paul “Bear” Bryant as the winningest coach in school history with a 26-16 win over No. 12 Florida on Saturday night, in a performance befitting the one he pitched in Lexington.
Behind a stout defense that shut down Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, the 20th-ranked Wildcats defeated Florida for the second straight season, the first time that had happened since 1976-77. Kentucky has won three of the past five in this series, once led by Florida.
But over the past five seasons under Stoops, Kentucky has been the more established program. He had 61 wins in 10 years as the Wildcats’ head coach.
“I’m glad it’s here,” Stoops said of the record. “We needed this win, and I’m just appreciative to get this opportunity. It’s been a group effort. We can’t do this and win that many games and stay in this conference that long without a lot of people doing a lot of good stuff and focused on what we’re trying to achieve.”
To win Saturday, Kentucky had to rally from a 16-13 halftime deficit. The Wildcats dominated the second half, keeping Florida off the scoreboard and Richardson from making the kind of game-changing plays he got in an upset win over Utah a week ago.
Richardson went 14-of-35 for 143 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions and was limited to six carries for 4 yards. Last week, Richardson scored three touchdowns in a 29-26 win over the Utes.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Richardson was 9-of-22 for 44 yards with two interceptions on passes thrown 10 or fewer yards downfield. The 40.9% completion rate on such passes is the worst by a Florida quarterback since 2015, when Treon Harris finished with 40% against Georgia.
“Anthony can do things better,” Florida coach Billy Napier said. “That starts with me. I think part of coaching is putting your players in position where they can have success. We made mistakes tonight. Anthony made mistakes. I made mistakes. One thing I know about Anthony, he’s a fighter. He’s going to show up again, and he’s going to try to improve. He has that level of investment and commitment to the players and the people in the organization.”
But Kentucky’s defense did more than keep Richardson on the ground. Keidron Smith returned an interception 65 yards for a touchdown to help the Wildcats take the lead for good.
“We’re ready now to go out there and beat the Florida Gators in the Swamp,” Smith said. “It has nothing to do with Anthony Richardson.”
A motivating factor, beyond the Florida loss, was a comment last week from the national media that referred to Kentucky as “soft.” Even before he was asked about the comment, Stoops said, “You got to be a tough son of a B to come into this environment and win. We all understand that, and we know this team is built that way. We’ve shown over the years. That’s who we are. We’re going to be a tough, tough football team that’s going to win tough games no matter what they look like. We can win, we can lose, but by God, we’re going to be tough, and we showed that tonight.”
Kentucky quarterback Will Levis went 13-of-24 for a touchdown and an interception, playing better in the second half as his offensive line improved in front of him. That helped the running game, as Kavosiey Smoke finished with 80 yards. With the defense shutting down Florida as well as it did, relying on a strong ground game is what the Wildcats really need to do in the second half. For his part, Levis said, “We want coach Stoops to get his win all the time, that’s a big motivating factor for us as well.”
Even though the Gators were the higher-ranked team Saturday night because of their win last week against Utah — jumping from unranked to No. 12 — Stoops couldn’t resist making one final quip after the victory.
“This place is rocking and coming off a big win so heck, we’ve got to jump into the top 10 I think right now,” Stoops said.