Behind the resilient Luke Del Rio, Gators find an identity and an unlikely victory
The story at a frenzied, frothing sold-out Kroger Field in Lexington on Saturday night was supposed to be about a program ascendant. The home team, clad in blue and chrome, was supposed to break through in year four of Mark Stoops’s rebuild, vanquishing thirty years of pain and futility against the hated Florida Gators in the process.
For a while, the game followed the script. The home team controlled Florida in all three phases, and by the fourth quarter, when Austin MacGinnis drilled a 50-yard field goal to give the Wildcats a 13-point lead, Kentucky appeared well on their way to its first 4-0 start since 2008.
On the other sideline, the team in the orange britches stood dejected, desperation on flummoxed, forlorn faces. The Gators were supposed to be the ascendant program, rising from the ashes of the zombie Urban Meyer year and Will Muschamp’s revolving door of failed offensive coordinators.
Jim McElwain’s program spent the summer talking about “kicking the door down” in Atlanta. A resurgent offense, led by either highly-touted redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks or Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire, would complement the always-steady Gators defense and help Florida compete for the SEC title.
Instead, a team still missing two of its best football players looked lost late in Lexington. Florida appeared poised to lose to Kentucky for the first time in 31 seasons, and worse, for the fourth time in six football games.
Franks didn’t have bad numbers but he looked confused and rattled by the scale of the moment and the swelling noise. Malik Zaire stood helplessly on the sideline, without so much as a headset. Every camera pan to McElwain seemed to offer the same view of a man who once bragged his dog Clarabelle could play quarterback in his offense: bowed over, one hand on knee, one on back of head, searching for answers.
Then the script was flipped by the most unlikely of heroes.
Luke Del Rio, forgotten member of the Gators’ quarterback triumvirate, entered the game and saved the night, and for now, the team’s dreams of another trip to Atlanta.
Luke Del Rio, whose most notable moment this season to date came this summer, when he argued with Gators fans on Twitter (always a brilliant idea) about whether he was noodle-armed or simply, perhaps, not endowed by his Creator with the same howitzer handed Franks, saved the night by simply settling the team down. Del Rio doesn’t have the arm of Franks or the mobility of Zaire, but he does know Doug Nussmeier’s offense, and the coaches — and the team — seemed confident in what he can do.
Del Rio, who was 5-1 as a starter last season, was playing only his second SEC road game, and his only start prior had been a debacle at Arkansas that got sideways quickly. But his presence calmed a Gators line that was missing assignments and alignments for three quarters, and the Gators suddenly found a rhythm and flow.
The quarterback switch gave the defense life too.
The Gators held after Del Rio threw an early interception — due to rust, mostly — on a post play where he didn’t check the safety. Then, after a fairly simple touchdown drive cut the lead to six, they came up with an immense three-and-out to give Florida the ball again with plenty of time on the clock. The game-winning drive wasn’t a work of art, but it did include a brilliant Del Rio play on fourth down, and it was a time-swallowing exercise in determination that got the job done.
Gators fans who spent the last two or three seasons claiming all the team needed was a game manager at quarterback got one Saturday night, and it was in fact good enough to win in a blue flame cauldron of an environment.
Del Rio is resilient, that much is certain. Whether it’s the multiple transfers or the injuries that short-circuited his 2016 campaign or the quarterback battle he lost in camp to the guy with the bigger upside, his toughness isn’t a question. Saturday night, down two scores on the road, the Gators needed that savvy mettle.
They’ll need to be collectively tough in the grind to come.
Florida is obviously still very much a work in progress, hardly what you’d call a beautiful football team.
The defense doesn’t tackle all that well without All-SEC safety Marcell Harris, and lacks the depth of the great defenses of years past. The special teams couldn’t cover kicks, wasting the best punter in the country in Johnny Townsend, who, based on hangtime alone, wasn’t outkicking coverage. And while the offensive coaching staff did a nice job Saturday night of getting the ball into the hands of playmakers Kadarius Toney, Malik Davis, Brandon Powell and Tyrie Cleveland, who collectively accounted for 38 touches on 63 total plays, the team still stuttered and faltered for stretches and lacked rhythm with Franks under center.
Many will scoff and wonder whether it’s an indictment of this coaching staff that they needed to turn to the third-string quarterback to win at Kentucky. To them, simply rephrase the question: doesn’t it say something about this coaching staff — and Luke Del Rio — that they prepared him to win a football game in the fourth quarter against a good team?
It says plenty. It says this staff is attentive to the types of down-roster details that make the difference between winning and losing.
But most of all, what Luke Del Rio coming into that tinderbox at Kroger Field and leading Florida to a fourth quarter comeback win shows, is that the Gators are tough. They’re resilient. They don’t quit.
The calendar still shows September, but think about what they’ve been through and what they’ve weathered.
A devastating injury to a team captain. Indefinite suspensions to star players. A crushing defeat in a ballyhooed opener. A catastrophic hurricane and a cancelled home game. John Kelly running downhill in the fourth quarter. The emotional ebb and flow of the “Heave to Cleve.” A quarterback switch and a two-score deficit on the road in the SEC in the fourth quarter.
Winners and successful seasons have been built on less.