UK plan: stay close, win late

Defense must limit Gators to have a chance at the end

ccosby@herald-leader.comOctober 25, 2008 

The Kentucky football team has not been run off the field since a 49-0 loss at LSU two seasons ago.

The Wildcats have played 10 ranked teams since that night in Baton Rouge, La., and each time they've found a way to stay in the game into the fourth quarter.

That streak will get a major test Saturday, when the Wildcats go into The Swamp to face fifth-ranked Florida as 26-point underdogs.

The Gators (5-1, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) are fresh. Florida did not play last week after obliterating No. 11 Louisiana State 51-21 on Oct. 11.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats (5-2, 1-2) are banged up. Several key players on a defense that has carried the load for Kentucky are either out or nursing injuries.

"This is a very scary game because when you have a team that can score 51 on LSU, I mean, my goodness," Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks said. "It's going to be a challenge in every area."

Kentucky defensive end Jeremy Jarmon said blowouts generally happen because teams eventually cave in after taking too many blows. But the 2008 Wildcats have shown some fortitude. They fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter at Alabama but crawled to within three, 17-14, late in the game before the Crimson Tide held on for a three-point win. And last week's game against Arkansas looked grim before Kentucky rallied for two touchdowns in the final 4:15 to steal the 21-20 win.

"A lot of guys go down (to Florida) and give up," Jarmon said. "But when we go up against teams like Alabama and Florida, we know they've got great players. Our goal is to make sure that, in the fourth quarter, these teams have as few points as possible.

"I think, in a lot of these games, it comes down to whose defense holds up the best in the fourth quarter and gives the offense a chance to try and win the game at the end. That's what this league is pretty much about this year."

Brooks said the Cats must avoid the mistakes that have plagued them at times this season. A short fumble-return touchdown by Alabama proved to be the difference in the loss to the Tide, and special-teams breakdowns contributed to UK's 24-17 loss to South Carolina. Brooks pointed out that in Florida's only loss, a 31-30 setback at home to Mississippi, the Rebels had a 3-1 advantage in turnovers.

"I think that's a key thing for us," Brooks said. "We can't continue, offensively, to give our opponents the ball, particularly on a short field. We have to make plays on their defense and move the chains."

The Cats might use the no-huddle more frequently to give the offense a jump-start because quarterback Mike Hartline has looked comfortable running the two-minute drill. He threw a 48-yard touchdown pass late against Alabama and threw for touchdowns on consecutive drives in the final minutes against Arkansas.

"Our two-minute operation has been really good around here," offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said. "We've got to investigate getting more into that. We went to that more two years ago, and it changes the tempo. Hopefully we pick some moments where we can do that down the road."

Much of UK's success in the no-huddle offense the past two years came with an experienced quarterback in Andre Woodson and a veteran cast of receivers. Hartline is in his first year as a starter and the Cats' top three receivers are true freshmen. And there's also the issue of crowd noise in The Swamp.

"When you get into no-huddle, there's a lot of communication with hand signals," Phillips said. "And we lined up with three true freshmen at wide receiver (against Arkansas). I guarantee you nobody else in the country is doing that. And you're going to get some mistakes, and that's what we're trying to eliminate."

Despite the injuries, Jarmon said the defense is ready to do what it's been doing all year and keep the team in the game and give it a chance to win in the fourth quarter.

"We're a team with a lot of pride," Jarmon said. "That's one thing I don't have to worry about with this team. We're going to go down there and try and get after Florida, and we're not going to give up. We have to play our best game of the year."

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