GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP)—Florida and Kentucky got an early start to beat Hurricane Jeanne.
Then the groggy Gators turned to Ciatrick Fason to beat the Wildcats.
Fason’s career-high 210 yards rushing and two touchdowns lifted the No. 16 Gators over Kentucky 20-3 Saturday, hours before the hurricane was to strike the state.
Kickoff was moved up 6 1/2 hours to 11:30 a.m. EDT because of Jeanne, which bore down on the state’s Atlantic coast with winds near 115 mph. Three million people were told to evacuate.
It didn’t keep the fans away from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, better known as The Swamp. The announced attendance was 89,741. Proceeds from concession sales from the game were to go toward relief funds for the victims of the three hurricanes that have already hit Florida this season.
The earliest start time the Gators have ever had in Gainesville seemed to leave both teams sluggish at the start. Florida (2-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) took a 10-3 lead early in the second quarter when Fason broke through the middle, bounced off six tacklers and went 46 yards.
“A lot of guys out there were down at the beginning of the game, so Coach Zook told me to get that spark in them. He knows I’m ready to play,” Fason said.
He ran 31 times, another career best for the junior.
“Not since Emmitt Smith’s time have we had someone rush like that,” Ron Zook said. “It’s great to see all his hard work paying off. He keeps plugging away every day and doing what he’s supposed to do.”
Smith has the top two rushing games in school history; Fason’s was fourth.
“I was watching some highlights from Emmitt back in the day, in a Florida uniform, and it was one of his big games,” Fason said. “I saw that and I was like, ‘Man, I hope I have a big game like that one day.”’
The Gators have won 18 straight games in the series and it was the first time they held an SEC opponent without a touchdown since shutting out Mississippi State in 2001.
Kentucky (1-2, 0-1) was held to 207 yards of offense, 56 coming on a first-quarter drive for a field goal, and 10 first downs. The Wildcats also were forced to punt seven times, committed two turnovers and turned the ball over on downs once. They gained 73 yards on 27 carries.
“We couldn’t get in synch, we couldn’t get things moving the way we would’ve liked to do them,” Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. “They were pretty dominant up front, their run defense as well as their pass defense. Their speed at linebacker shut us down on the perimeter pretty easily.”
Fason put the game away on an 7-yard scoring reception from Chris Leak with four minutes left to play. He had five catches for 43 yards.
Matt Leach kicked field goals of 40 and 21 yards, but missed one and had another blocked.
That was enough offense to bail out Leak, who had one of his most erratic games since becoming the starter a year ago this week. In that game against Kentucky, Leak led the Gators back from an 18-point deficit for a 24-21 victory.
Leak completed 25 of 43 passes for 261 yards Saturday, but threw three interceptions—two in the red zone—largely negating Florida’s 523 yards. In the third quarter, he also overlooked a wide-open Fason on a fourth-and-goal situation at the Kentucky 3, instead hitting Chad Jackson outside the end zone for a pointless 2-yard gain.
“You see that all the time with quarterbacks. Some of his throws were off and some of them were late, but he’s still a great player,” Zook said. “He’s the type of guy you don’t have to worry about.
On the game’s opening drive, Leak threw an interception deep in Kentucky territory and the Wildcats cashed it in for Taylor Begley’s career-long 51-yard field goal.
After that, the Gators had little problem handling an offense that, the week before, racked up 51 points and 560 yards against Indiana. Following the field goal, the Wildcats never advanced past Florida’s 31.
“We had a few opportunities to make a few passes, but either we didn’t throw it right or we didn’t catch it,” Brooks said.
Shane Boyd was 17-of-35 for 134 yards and rushed for another 28 yards for Kentucky. He also threw an interception at midfield and Fason scored on the next play.