Florida's SEC-leading defense a difficult test for Kentucky's sputtering offense

jsmith3@herald-leader.comSeptember 27, 2013 

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

It was a simple question really, the one tossed at Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown on Wednesday.

How are you going to run the ball against Florida?

Brown paused and pondered, looking like a man who'd been asked to use the Pythagorean theorem to solve a problem in less than 10 seconds.

"That's a great question," Brown said, not because of the query's depth or complexity, but because it clearly had been something he had been mulling over from the time the final horn sounded two weeks ago.

How is Kentucky going to run the ball against Florida?

For that matter, how is Kentucky going to pass the ball against Florida?

The No. 20 Gators' defense has been that good this season.

"Obviously, we've got our hands full," Brown said. "They're really good."

Kentucky's head coach, a defensive coordinator by trade, can't imagine there are better defenses in the country right now.

"They're very good defensively, as good as maybe anyone we'll play this year," Mark Stoops said. "So very good, very talented, very physical defense."

Stoops should know. He recruited many of the Florida players when he was at Florida State for the past three years.

This is the kind of defense he wants to build at Kentucky.

"Their front four, they're very disruptive, very dominant up front, and their secondary is fabulous," Stoops said. "They cover the heck out of you."

The Gators, who have won 26 in a row over Kentucky, lead the Southeastern Conference in every defensive statistical category, including total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense, passing defense and pass efficiency defense.

They haven't given up more than 66 yards rushing in a game this season. They allow less than 12 first downs a game, and opponents have converted on third down against the Gators only seven times on 37 tries (18.9 percent).

Just look back to Florida's SEC opener last weekend in Gainesville when the Gators held Tennessee to 31 yards in the first half. Florida forced six turnovers in the game.

The Vols' first six drives of that game: fumble, fumble, interception, punt, punt interception.

"You can't turn the ball over against the Gators," Stoops said. "They feast on that. Again, they're very good and very disruptive defensively, but you can't turn it over."

The Gators (2-1) have 19 tackles for a loss this season and at least five tackles for a loss in all three games, allowing just 3.9 yards per play, including a paltry 2.5 yards per run.

"I just see a team that wants to man up and beat you," said Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith, who missed much of the second half against Louisville with a shoulder injury but is expected to play Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. "They just let you know — they don't even really care if they know what you're doing — they just say, 'We're better than you and we're going to line up and we're going to beat you.'"

Kentucky (1-2) has been inconsistent offensively this season, with young players at nearly every position, and using two quarterbacks to try and increase the pace and production.

There have been dropped passes and missed opportunities for UK, which hasn't won an SEC game since Nov. 26, 2011, and hasn't beaten a ranked opponent in 10 straight tries.

Kentucky has struggled on third-down plays, not converting on any of their 13 attempts against Louisville two weeks ago and only on 25.6 percent of them this season.

But the Cats, who will be leaning heavily on senior Raymond Sanders and true freshman Jojo Kemp to run the ball, have had two weeks to get better, and they think they have.

"If we're able to put it all together, I think we can show the type team we're able to be and be competitive in this league," Sanders said. "So it is a statement game for us ... it's more about proving to ourselves that we can play, that we've gotten better and we're improving."

The Gators will be without key starter Dominique Easley after the senior defensive tackle tore his anterior cruciate ligament in practice this week. But Florida has loads of depth up front. That's one of the things that makes them such a challenge to wear down, even for an up-tempo offense like Brown's.

"They're really good," Brown said. "I can describe them a bunch of different ways, but they're as good or better than anybody in the country.

"They're talented not only up front, but in the back end. They've got a lot of guys that I'd like to have their paychecks one day."

Florida has a lot of question marks on offense, playing with a new quarterback, Tyler Murphy, who is making his first career start on the road in a night SEC game.

The defense is going to do its part to make life easier for Murphy.

"Our job is to not let the other team put points on the board," sophomore lineman Dante Fowler said. "As long as we can prevent that from happening, we win."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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