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‘Great challenge’ awaits Stoops, Wildcats in Southeastern Conference opener at Florida

A.J. Rose rushed for 104 yards and two touchdowns in Kentucky’s 35-20 win over Central Michigan last Saturday at Kroger Field. The Wildcats take on Florida at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Gainesville. (Kentucky Today/Bill Thiry)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Kentucky’s decades-long losing streak to Florida nearly ended last season.

It took a last-second touchdown aided by a defensive error in the closing minutes by the Wildcats for the Gators to keep the streak alive in a 28-27 triumph last year at Kroger Field. It’s a play that has haunted the Wildcats for the past year and a letdown Kentucky’s defensive backs haven’t forgotten.

“It won’t happen again, though,” defensive back Lonnie Johnson said earlier this week. “We look at what happened last year and we don’t want that to happen again. It was a big win for them and it is what it is.”

The Gators have won 31 straight over the Wildcats, the fourth-winning streak in the nation but first-year Florida coach Dan Mullen knows the Gators’ dominance won’t last forever.

“I imagine, one day, the streak will be broken,” Mullen said earlier this week. “That’s just the nature of sports.”

To even have a chance at beating the Gators in Gainesville for the first time since 1979, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said the Wildcats can’t afford a slow start similar to last week’s opener when the Wildcats fell behind 17-7 before rallying for a 35-20 win over Central Michigan last week. In his team’s last visit to Florida Field two years ago, the Wildcats dropped a 45-7 setback.

“The last time we went down there we didn’t start very fast and we certainly didn’t start very good (last) Saturday,” Stoops said. “I think that is one point that we’ll communicate the right way, is getting a fast start. You do let it get away from you and let those fans get involved and then you let them get aggressive on both sides of the ball, things can get out of hand real quick. You see that in a lot of those environments if you watch some of these places when the fans are going to explode. You can’t give them that opportunity. I think getting off to a fast start is important.”

Stoops also knows his team doesn’t have much room for error against the Gators. In the opener last week, the Wildcats lost two fumbles and threw a pair of interceptions against the Chippewas.

“One of them got hit out by a helmet, no excuse there,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said earlier this week. “We’ve still got to keep it high and tight. Loose on the one. Throwing the ball up in the air for grabs. (We’ve) got to learn from that. Run the ball. If you’re going to throw those, back or the corner of the end zone. Us or nobody throws. So, I hope to god we get that fixed. We have to. (You) can’t go anywhere and turn the ball over like that and expect to win.”

“You turn the ball over four times there and it won’t be good. When we go anywhere. We’re lucky, very lucky. The defense played great, we played sloppy at times and we’ve got to get it cleaned up.”

Stoops is 0-5 against Florida, with three of those setbacks by a combined margin of 12 points. For his team to turn the proverbial corner, Stoops said the Wildcats can’t afford to make small mistakes on both sides of the ball.

“You do the little things right over and over and over, big things will happen,” Stoops said. “We have some unbelievable clips of the past game where if we just do the little things, big plays were going to happen instead of negative ones. That’s the beauty of having this film and getting corrected and be on with it. When you’re in that environment, you have to embrace it, but you have to concentrate on what you have to do.”

Florida opened the Mullen era with a 53-6 thrashing of Charleston Southern last week. The biggest takeaway for Stoops was the aggressiveness of the Gators’ defense.

“They have some difference-makers on defense at all levels of their defense,” Stoops said. “They have some disruptors up front. Their linebacker’s a really good player and their secondary, I think they gave up three yards (last week). I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that. That’s pretty good. They have some very good players.”

Gran agreed with Stoops and said the contest won’t be an easy one for the Wildcats.

“All of their d-front is a big-time SEC defensive front,” Stoops said. “Their linebackers are fast. Secondary, their two corners are long, fast. They’ve had a lot of experience. They’ll press you, physical. They’re really good. They all click. It’s a great defense. It’s a great challenge for us … great challenge.”

Gametracker: Kentucky at Florida, 7:30 p.m. Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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