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Kentucky must make a giant leap to topple Gators in Southeastern Conference opener

Kentucky linebacker Jamar “Boogie” Watson tackles Jonathan Ward during a 35-20 win over the Chippewas Saturday at Kroger Field. (Kentucky Today/Bill Thiry)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

In order for Kentucky to end a long winless streak against Florida, the Wildcats must make a giant leap from the first week to the second one.

Not that the opener was full of doom and gloom, but Central Michigan and the Gators are two different teams and Mark Stoops knows his squad will have to produce a better effort to even stand a chance at beating the Gators in Gainesville.

He singled out his team’s improvement from the first to second scrimmage during fall workouts and expects the same result this weekend despite playing in a “tough environment” in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams next week.

“I really liked the way we played as a unit (Saturday), so it’s what I expect of them and to improve from here,” he said following a 35-20 win over Central Michigan Saturday night.

Florida opened the Dan Mullen era with a 53-6 victory over Charleston Southern Saturday night. Although the Buccaneers are 0-20 against FBS teams, the fact that Florida put 50 points on the scoreboard is impressive and an early indication that Mullen is well on his way to restoring order following last season’s collapse that produced a rare 4-7 record.

Mullen rarely lost to Kentucky in his nine seasons at Mississippi State and inherited a Florida team that defeated the Wildcats 28-27 on a last-second touchdown last year in Lexington. The heartbreaking and crushing defeat extended the Gators’ winning streak against the Wildcats to 31 straight games.

Kentucky has been closing the gap against Florida, but it remains to be seen whether or not the Wildcats will eventually defeat the Gators on the gridiron.

Although the Wildcats gave up 20 points in the opener, largely because of four turnovers by the offense in the first half, Kentucky pitched a shutout in the last two quarters and played solid. Kentucky surrendered just 255 yards, the lowest in an opener since 2011 when it gave up 234 yards against Western Kentucky.

“There was some adversity that hit in the first half and I thought that the guys didn’t hang their heads and we came back and responded as a unit,” said Kentucky linebacker Kash Daniel, who led the Wildcats with 11 tackles and a pair of quarterback hurries.

Josh Allen, who spurned a jump to the NFL following a spectacular junior campaign last season, collected 10 tackles, complete with three tackles for a loss of 11 yards and a added a sack for a loss of seven yards, was happy with the finish.

“We played well on some plays,” Allen said. “A couple of plays we took off and I feel like we kind of felt sorry for ourselves. I feel like overall we bounced back. We did pretty well in the second half.”

It will take that kind of effort and then some to fend off the Gators next weekend.

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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