And Reason Two that I wasn’t throwing golf balls at the TV? Because Kentucky beat Florida on Saturday night, and I was still floating on rare air. You might have heard about it. Kentucky had not beaten Florida since 1986, the year that I came to New Orleans in the Jim Finks Redemption Caravan. Geez, that was a long time ago! Just think about how long the Saints went without a winning season, and that was only 19 years! But 31 years? That’s a generation of Big Blue fans who automatically penciled in “loss” next to the Florida game when the schedule comes out.
Do you remember 1986? Some singer named Mr. Mister had two songs in the top ten. The most popular movies were Top Gun, Aliens and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I know, you’ve seen them all recently on Netflix, but I bet you still don’t remember Mr. Mister! By the way, the Saints were 7-9 in 1986, and that team could have beaten the team you saw Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, I was disappointed that the Saints looked positively anemic against a Tampa team that was 5-11 last year and was playing with its backup quarterback. Saints fans were not too worried about Mark Ingram’s loss to a four-game suspension because they knew QB Drew Brees would make everything okay. But after gaining 43 yards on the ground Sunday, the Saints have to be rethinking their strategy on how to survive without Ingram.
The new kid on the block, Mike Gillislee was picked up from the Patriots who must have known something Sean Payton didn’t. Gillislee’s second-quarter fumble that was returned for a touchdown and a 31-17 Tampa lead was the first time I thought this game might not be what everybody expected. And then I thought about the Kentucky running game against Florida, and I felt better. Junior RB Benny Snell says he is the best running back in the SEC, and nobody could disagree after he ran through, over and around the Gators for 275 yards on 27 carries. Snell has a chance this year to become the all-time rushing leader at Kentucky (I can hear the wiseacres thinking that’s like being the all-time home run hitter for the Toledo Mud Hens). No, it’s not, dammit!
Tampa QB Ryan Fitzpatrick looked like Fran Tarkenton with his timely throws and scrambling for first downs and a touchdown. I haven’t looked it up, but Fitzpatrick’s stat line - 21 of 28 passes for 417 yards, four touchdowns, a 14.7 average per attempt, no sacks and no interceptions - was one of the most efficient performances against the Saints quarterback in years. It didn’t hurt that Marshon Lattimore looked nothing like the 2017 defensive rookie of the year as Michael Evans took him to the woodshed repeatedly. The other defensive backs looked confused as DeSean Jackson and TE O.J. Howard had their way. Of course, when the only example of a Saints’ pass rush were penalized under the new protect-the-QB rules, you can’t expect a quarterback to panic.
Then I’m warmed by how Kentucky’s secondary handled the Florida passing game. QB Feleipe Franks, who was headed to LSU until Les Miles was fired, completed only 17 of 38 attempts for 232 yards and two touchdowns. Franks had a critical fourth-quarter pass intercepted by DB Darius West and it could have been worse as Kentucky DB’s dropped two or three other Franks’ tosses that could have been taken the other way.
So after this column’s two favorite football teams did the unthinkable this past weekend, what can we expect next weekend? Kentucky should have an easy time with Murray State, but if you think it’s going to get easier for the Saints, you might be mistaken. They host the Cleveland Browns, who arm-wrestled Super Bowl hopeful Pittsburgh to a 21-21 draw in much the same way Tampa beat the Saints. They took advantage of turnovers and they got big plays, including a game-tying touchdown pass from Tyrod Taylor to Josh Gordon that tied the game inside the final two minutes. Let’s hope DeSean Jackson and Michael Evans don’t have Gordon’s Twitter address.