John Clay: Gators the example Kentucky wants to follow

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 28, 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)

When a couple of key Florida players went down, the hopes of the Big Blue Nation went up.

Maybe this would be the year, the year Kentucky would finally snap that nasty 26-game losing streak to those swamp-infested Gators.

Why Dick Vitale tweeted it could happen. And Kirk Herbstreit said it could happen. And suddenly the Bluegrass state was hooked on the feeling the team from the Sunshine State was ripe for the picking.

And then the football was placed on the tee and reality visited Commonwealth Stadium.

Again.

Thirteen plays and 93 yards later Florida had the lead, and outside of a little slight-of-hand from the host Cats, Will Muschamp's Gators were in charge all night, beating Kentucky 24-7 as Florida continued its mastery by pounding the rock to prove a point.

For Mark Stoops' team, this was a facts-of-life game. And the fact is that even though the Gators were without star defensive tackle Dominique Easley (out for the year with an ACL tear) and quarterback Jeff Driskel (out for the year with a factured leg), Florida's second- and third-stringers are still better than most of Kentucky's starters.

"Even without their best D-linemen out, they've got guys behind him that are going to the NFL," said Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith.

That's just the way it is — the way it has been for most of this now- phenomenal 27-year streak. One recruiting class by Stoops and Company is not going to change that.

"One or two guys doesn't make a difference with that team," Stoops said of the Gators. "I was there a year ago (at Florida State). We lost the best player on our defense (defensive end Brandon Jenkins) the first game. It didn't affect us one bit."

If anything, the loss of Easley and Driskel made the Gators more focused, especially when going against an underdog team in a hostile environment.

"I'm pleased with how our guys pulled together," Muschamp said.

"They've got a lot of good players," Stoops said. "They have very good coaches. They're good at what they do. That's what we're aiming to get to."

There was really nothing Saturday night that told you Stoops can't get there. Eventually.

Yes, the Kentucky offense struggled. Neal Brown's Air Raid didn't score a touchdown. A 25-yard run by Joe Mansour on a fake field goal late in the first quarter accounted for the Cats' only points. The offense gained just 173 yards, which was 46 less than the Joker Phillips/Randy Sanders offense, with quarterback Morgan Newton getting the last-second start thanks to Smith's bad shoulder, gained last year in Gainesville.

And, yet, Florida entered Saturday night with the SEC's No. 1 and the nation's No. 2 defense in terms of yards allowed. No Easley? No problem.

"It was frustrating," admitted UK offensive coordinator Brown. "But those guys are good."

"Big, physical dudes," Stoops called the Gators.

Defensively, Kentucky never forced a Florida punt, and backup quarterback Tyler Murphy was silky smooth, completing 15 of 18 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 36 more.

And yet, without much help from the offense, D.J. Eliot's defense did enough to keep it a two-score game for most of the evening.

Not that Stoops was buying into believing UK was any closer than that.

"I just felt like it was uphill from the beginning," said the coach.

The same goes for his program. No team in America is facing as tough a stretch as Stoops' Troops are now halfway through — No. 7 Louisville last game, No. 20 Florida this game, then No. 12 South Carolina in Columbia next Saturday, then No. 1 Alabama back at home.

"We know it's going to be a process," said the coach. "Again, I'm not discouraged. We're going to go back to work. ... We know we're not there yet, but we're going to keep on trying."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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