GatorZone.com Senior Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. – The scramble underneath the pile was against a guy he knows well.
However, Gators defensive tackle Omar Hunter didn’t know he was fighting for the loose ball with teammate Lerentee McCray until the pile cleared. Hunter just knew he wasn’t giving up without a good fight considering the circumstances.
“We both had our hands on it. I just had to take it away from him,’’ Hunter said. “I didn’t know I was taking it away from him, but I wasn’t leaving without the ball.’’
Hunter’s determination was for good reason. Early in the first quarter of Saturday’s 48-10 win over Kentucky, the Gators needed a lift. The Wildcats had the momentum by keeping Florida pinned deep in its own territory.
But one play changed everything.
On second-and-1 from Kentucky’s 45, Wildcats quarterback Morgan Newton handed off to freshman running back Josh Clemons. McCray caused Clemons to fumble, and after an intense scramble for the ball underneath the pile, Hunter’s recovery gave the Gators their first break.
On the very next play quarterback John Brantley hit tight end Gerald Christian for a 45-yard touchdown pass to put the Gators in front for good.
“The first kickoff, we got caught down way back. You don’t want to start the game like that,’’ said Christian, referring to Florida opening the game at its own 12. “That turnover helped out a lot.’’
Hunter’s recovery was the first of four turnovers the Gators forced on Saturday, one more than they had forced in the first three games.
The four takeaways led to 24 points for the Gators.
“I’m pleased with the turnovers,’’ Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “We’ve just got to do a much better job coaching it, first of all, and secondly, capitalizing in the game.’’
Later in the first quarter, Newton was picked off by Gators safety Matt Elam, who now has interceptions in back-to-back games for the first time in his career. Elam returned the interception 18 yards to Kentucky’s 28.
Two plays later – and after a highlight-reel worthy 27-yard run by Chris Rainey that went from sideline to sideline – Trey Burton scored on a 1-yard plunge for a 21-0 Gators lead.
With six forced turnovers in the last two games, Elam senses the Gators gaining confidence at making game-changing plays on defense.
“To win football games, you need to get turnovers,’’ Elam said. “He is eventually going to throw me the ball if I just stay patient. Quarterbacks always make mistakes, overthrowing balls, tipped balls, things like that.
“I basically kept my eyes on the quarterback. It gives me a lot of confidence. When you make interceptions, those are big plays. It helps the offense, helps us get touchdowns.”
The Gators forced their third turnover of the first half when linebacker Jon Bostic drilled Newton as he was preparing to throw the ball inside Kentucky’s 10-yard line.
The ball popped out of Newton’s hands and landed safely into the grasp of Florida defensive lineman JayeHoward, who strolled into the end zone for a two-yard fumble return.
“All I saw was Bostic hammer him,’’ said Howard, who had not scored a touchdown since his junior year of high school. “If we do that, it takes pressure off the offense. It just brings energy to everyone.’’
The Gators’ final turnover came on Michael Taylor’s 30-yard interception return that set up a 27-yard field goal from Caleb Sturgis to put the Gators ahead, 41-10, late in the third quarter.
Muschamp and Gators defensive coordinator Dan Quinn have heavily emphasized the importance of forcing more turnovers since the Gators finished with none in the first game. The Gators committed three turnovers of their own Saturday, but the defense did its part which made the offense’s miscues harmless in the final outcome.
“We couldn’t take our feet off the gas,’’ Hunter said. “We had to keep forcing more turnovers.’’
“We’ve been looking for that all year,’’ he said. “It’s what we’ve been practicing. We needed it to translate to the game.’’