LEXINGTON, Ky. — His right leg was slung over the wall meant to separate players from fans and, on this night, joy from torment. So close he could practically feel the turf at Kroger Field beneath his brown boot.
This poor man, but one fan, might as well have been all of Kentucky football on Saturday night: ready to rush that field and exorcise a demon, thrashing in anticipation, on the very cusp of salvation — only to be dragged back down into the pit of hell that is Florida 28, Kentucky 27.
The Wildcats’ 31st consecutive loss at the hands of the Gators will do nothing to dispel the notion that there is indeed some kind of curse upon their house. This one will take a lofty place on the list of the most miserable defeats in the series.
Right up there with Wuerffel to Doering in 1993, a blown 21-3 lead in 2003 and a play clock violation that wasn’t in 2014. This one will sting especially because Kentucky actually looked like the better team for most of the night, which has rarely been the case through three decades of futility.
“We’re better than them, period,” running back Benny Snell declared afterward.
The Wildcats scored first, led by 13 in the fourth quarter and only trailed for a total of 43 seconds on Saturday night — but they were the final 43 seconds. For everything it did right, Kentucky twice left wide receivers completely uncovered for Florida touchdowns, including the last one.
Coach Mark Stoops, who has built and built and built this program to the point that it could stand toe to toe with the Gators and not need tricks or gimmicks to take complete control, will now take a deserved beating for those two inexplicable plays. He admitted to not noticing a receiver all alone on a fourth-down, 45-yard Florida touchdown in the second quarter.
He took the blame for the Wildcats having just 10 defenders on the field for the game-winning score that reduced outside linebacker Josh Allen to: “I was praying for him to drop it.” He did not.
And still there was hope. That poor man began straddling the wall when quarterback Stephen Johnson hit Charles Walker for 14 yards on fourth-and-11 for a first down at the Gators’ 35 with 21 seconds to go. Kentucky still had a timeout and the school’s all-time leader in made field goals, Austin MacGinnis, who’d already drilled a 50-yarder Saturday.
Then Snell broke loose up the middle for another 10 yards and a sellout crowd — the Cats’ first since 2015 — prepared to join that half-slung man in scaling the wall. From that distance, MacGinnis was all but automatic. After all of the blowout embarrassments and gut-punching close calls, after a night of premature celebration that turned to horror and back again, this was it.
The streak was going to en… Wait, WHAT is that?!
Instead of a yellow flag, for holding on right guard Nick Haynes, the official should’ve just gone ahead and thrown a grenade into the stands. It was a devastating blow. Instead of a 42-yarder, MacGinnis’ game-winning attempt as time expired came from 57.
It landed well short of the cross bar, and that poor man dragged his leg back onto the side of torment and shuffled off like some 63,000 other shell-shocked fans and somber, red-eyed players. Maybe, you have to begin to wonder, this thing will never end.
“You could have heard a pin drop in there,” Stoops said of the postgame locker room. “It hurts like that because of what they have done, what they have put into it. They’re deflated because of the amount of work and how much they wanted to win that game. The amount of work that these guys have done since last December to put yourself in a position to win that game — and really, quite honestly, years. Years and years of hard work to put yourself in a position to win those games. That’s what hurts.”
One year ago, Florida beat this team 45-7. Kentucky did not look like it belonged on the same field. And then Johnson took over at quarterback and the Wildcats rattled off 10 wins over the next 14 games, including a 3-0 start to this season.
There was hope. Coming into the game, throughout the game, and even until the bitter end of the game — hope. A poor man with one leg slung over the wall between a gift and a curse. And he’ll be damned if it didn’t happen again.