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By LARRY VAUGHT
When Mark Stoops said that Florida likely would be the best defense that Kentucky would face this year — and yes, he knew South Carolina and Alabama were UK’s next two games — he wasn’t kidding. The Gators’ defense dominated Kentucky here Saturday night as Florida extended its win streak over UK to 27 straight with a 24-7 win.
Kentucky was stymied offensively the entire game — the only touchdown came on a perfectly executed fake field goal that kicker Joe Mansour turned into a 25-yard scoring sprint. But no matter what else offensive coordinator Neal Brown tried or call, it normally didn’t work against the bigger, faster, stronger Gators.
While some UK fans might be upset with the play calling, remember it was only last year UK fans were blasting then coach Joker Phillips and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders for their lack of creativity. Brown tried reverses. He called a throwback pass to quarterback Jalen Whitlow — that Daryl Collins failed to throw and took an 11-yard sack to take UK out of scoring range. He played both quarterbacks. He tried a variety of running backs.
But the bottom line is that while the UK defense played courageously and got some stops, the Gators were just too good on defense for this rebuilding UK offense.
“Give Florida credit. They did what I was worried about. They controlled both lines of scrimmage. Very physical team. Right from the opening drive they set the tone for what the night would be like,” said Stoops.
Florida rolled up 402 yards and held UK to 173. Florida ran 63 plays to 47 for Kentucky — the lowest number of plays Brown said he could ever remember having an offense run.
“We had a few opportunities to make it a game and didn’t make them,” Stoops said. “We knew it would be hard going in. We are leaving a lot of plays on the field, but that has a lot to do with Florida and the way they play. They physically beat us.”
UK’s first drive went 75 yards. Every drive after that? Combined 98 yards.
“They can pressure you and control the line. They make it difficult to run the ball. They outnumber you all the time with big, physical dudes. They put you in a bind where you have to make plays to beat them,” Stoops said.
And Kentucky couldn’t do that.
Kentucky had been outscored 97-3 by Florida in the first quarter of the last five games. Thanks to Mansour’s score, this time it was 7-7 after one quarter. By halftime, it was 21-7. In the second half, UK’s defense made enough plays at the right time to hold Florida to a field goal, but the offense just had no real answers.
Brown praised Florida’s defense just as Stoops did.
“We rolled the dice a couple of times because we felt we had to and it backfired,” Brown said of the gimmick plays. “Negative plays hurt us on offense.”
However, trailing 21-7, the throwback pass to Whitlow at the Florida 22-yard line was there. Instead, Collins ate the ball and on the next play quarterback Maxwell Smith threw an interception in the end zone.
“We should have thrown it. We had that play,” Stoops said. “They took it to us, but that was an opportunity to get some good yards on that play. It was set up like we wanted.”
Brown said he “didn’t know” why Collins didn’t throw. He also said he didn’t know why freshman JoJo Kemp, who gained 11 yards on UK’s second play, didn’t touch the ball again until the fourth quarter because running backs coach Chad Scott handles the rotation. Stoops said he really “didn’t pay attention” to Kemp not playing even though he was elevated to No. 1 on the depth chart and both Stoops and Brown vowed to get him the ball more after his play against Louisville.
Stoops admitted Brown was frustrated with the offense just like he was with UK not winning. But both the UK head coach and the offensive coordinator stressed they were not discouraged.
“We knew this would be a process,” Stoops said. “We know we are not there yet, but we are going to keep trying. I just felt like it was uphill from the beginning. I thought they were in control. If we had made a play or two, you don’t know what might have happened. I like this group. We are going to keep on banging.
“There was some fight in us and we are going to try to continue to get better. That’s just the way it is. We expect everybody in there to keep grinding.”
The players say they will.
“There was not anybody on our team who didn’t think we could win tonight,” senior running back Raymond Sanders said. “We still believe. We are not giving up. These coaches believe in us and we believe in them. We didn’t win, but we know we can win.”