LEXINGTON, Ky. — This one was reminiscent of so many Florida football games in recent years.
The offense managed to do just enough, the defense flexed its muscles at the right times, and the Gators escaped with a 14-9 victory at Kentucky on Saturday night at sold-out Commonwealth Stadium.
While Florida’s 29th consecutive victory over the Wildcats won’t go down as an instant classic in Gator lore, it could go down as the day the Gators found their quarterback of the future.
Or maybe not. It’s still too early to know.
Here is what we do know: three games into the Jim McElwain era, and in the Gators’ SEC opener on the road in front of a rabid crowd, the Florida offense sputtered at times but not enough for McElwain to yank redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier in favor of sophomore Treon Harris on Saturday night.
What does that exactly mean? Maybe nothing next week when Tennessee visits The Swamp, or perhaps everything you need to know about the direction Florida’s offense is headed in McElwain’s inaugural season.
Grier started for the second consecutive game and for the first time in the quarterback shuffle between Grier and Harris, one of them went wire to wire.
Harris warmed up on the sideline during a stretch in the second half when the Gators’ offense looked like it had stepped in quicksand, but it was Grier who played on as the Wildcats threatened to overcome an 11-point halftime deficit.
Grier finished 13 of 22 for 125 yards. On first-and-goal from Kentucky’s 5-yard line, he threw an interception in the end zone on a potential touchdown pass to tight end Jake McGee in the third quarter that would have given the Gators a commanding leading.
Instead, the turnover gave the Wildcats enough momentum to make the final 15 minutes interesting.
McElwain said Grier, who led the team with 61 yards rushing, was good enough to leave with a victory in his first road test.
"He did some decent things," McElwain said. "Obviously he has a lot of growing to do. He did some good things with his feet, got us some plays, but that might have gotten him into trouble as well by not staying in the pocket and letting the play develop.
"He left some awful big plays on the field. We’ll learn from it."
With the Gators trying to hold onto the nation’s longest active win streak in an annual series with an opponent, Grier appeared in pain late in the game as he struggled to move the Gators consistently down the field.
Harris warmed up briefly on Florida’s next-to-last possession. However, McElwain asked Grier if he was OK to continue multiple times before Florida’s series with 6:10 left in the game.
Grier assured McElwain he was fine and opened the drive with a 12-yard run. The drive eventually stalled and the Gators had to punt.
The Wildcats took over with 2:26 remaining and moved to their 47 when defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard made his biggest play of the game with a 12-yard sack of Patrick Towles on third-and-10.
The Wildcats were then penalized five yards and on fourth-and-27 from their 30, Towles threw a pass deep downfield that was picked up by sophomore cornerback Quincy Wilson.
While Grier was far from perfect, he outplayed Towles, one of the SEC’s top returning quarterbacks who threw for 369 yards last season against the Gators. Towles finished 8 of 24 for 126 yards and two interceptions. He was sacked six times.
McGee, Florida’s leading receiver with three catches for 30 yards, said Grier’s confidence was on display in the huddle despite the spotty performance.
"I thought Will showed great poise and great leadership," McGee said. "When you’re out there, you didn’t feel like he was a freshman. I was real impressed with what he brought. He was getting hit a lot. He stayed tough.
"He wasn’t yelling people. He was staying positive and encouraging everyone else. That’s the little stuff that can be taken from granted from a young quarterback."
Besides the ongoing storyline of Florida’s unsettled quarterback situation, a sidebar to Florida’s win Saturday was the way the team responded to the challenge McElwain delivered after last week’s victory over East Carolina.