Just call it “The streak.”
It doesn’t need much clarification anymore.
Kentucky fans and Florida fans alike understand “The streak” to be the 29 years of Cats futility in facing Florida.
Coach Mark Stoops was 19 and playing at Iowa the last time Kentucky beat the Gators. Florida Coach Jim McElwain was a graduate assistant at Eastern Washington.
A lifetime ago for both coaches, who both did their best to downplay the streak — dating to Nov. 15, 1986 — and its effect on either team as Kentucky travels to The Swamp on Saturday for the Southeastern Conference Game of the Week.
“It’s something to write about, but every year is different,” McElwain said. “Now it’s 0-0. These two teams have never played and that’s the key.”
Stoops didn’t see the streak as a motivating factor.
“No. No, not from my point of view,” Kentucky’s coach said Wednesday. “I think each season each and every team is totally different from another. … The past 30 years have nothing to do with us and this team. Really not concerned with it at all.”
Stoops went on to note that Kentucky has enough things to worry about, things to tidy up from the season-opening loss to Southern Miss that saw the Cats cough up a 25-point advantage and fall 44-35.
“We know we’re playing a very good team. To answer your question, no, we’re not worried about the last 30 years. No.”
But what about the past two years when Kentucky has played the Gators dangerously close, falling 14-9 at Commonwealth Stadium a season ago and the hard-to-forget three-overtime loss in Gainesville?
While those might give Kentucky’s players some added confidence going into The Swamp, it doesn’t affect this game at all, Stoops said.
“The fact that we played Florida well the past two games and the fact that we played ’em well two years ago when we went down there means nothing to us,” he said.
It means something at Florida, with McElwain calling last season’s 14-9 win in Lexington a “true dogfight.
“They’re going to come down here with that mentality, that the last time they played in this stadium, they probably felt they should’ve won the ball game,” the coach said. “There’s a lot of things that go into that.”
If anything, UK’s close encounters with the Gators have caused the Florida players to pay closer attention to the opponent at hand.
“It’s something I don’t want to have happen again,” Florida senior linebacker Jarrad Davis said of that three-OT game in 2014, which would’ve been the Cats’ first win in Gainesville since 1979.
“It was a roller coaster that I didn’t want to be on for a while, but it came out our way. So I just want to make sure that we handle business.”
Getting past setbacks
Drew Barker was beating himself up a little bit for Kentucky’s loss to Southern Miss last weekend.
His three turnovers in the second half ultimately meant that the Cats’ offense had just 14 possessions and that the Golden Eagles were able to wear down UK’s defense.
“I mean, I had three turnovers,” he said Tuesday when asked if he was being too hard on himself. “Like I said, that was my fault. I’ve learned from it, moved on. I’m not really worried about it.”
He’s going to have to summon his inner cache clearer on Saturday when the sophomore starter will make his first-ever start on the road at The Swamp.
Barker’s previous three starts all have been at Commonwealth Stadium, but he’s been in hostile road environments and led a scoring drive on the road at Vanderbilt last season.
For its part, UK’s staff pumped in intensely loud crowd noise during certain practice periods this week to prepare Barker for his first road start in Gainesville.
“I’m really excited,” Barker said. “The Swamp is one of the best places to play in all of college football, so it should be really exciting. Looking forward to it.”
Some of what happened to Barker on the turnovers in the second half were just part of the learning curve for a young quarterback, his coaches said. He was trying to make a play that wasn’t there on the interception.
“That was the only play he made a really bad decision and a bad choice and a bad throw,” Stoops said of the pick trying to loft the ball up to Tavin Richardson. “That’s a bit of hitting the panic button right there and just throwing it up. We won’t do that.”
Seeing so many positives in how he played in the opener — connecting on 15 of 24 passes for 323 yards and four touchdowns — and having clear mistakes to learn from made Barker an eager student this week, his quarterbacks coach said.
“His attitude is unbelievable,” Darin Hinshaw said. “He’s working his butt off.”
‘Let’s get our act together’
People not in the practice facility might have heard the phrase “players-only meeting” uttered this week, just one game into the season and wondered what was amiss.
But junior linebacker Courtney Love said it’s not an unusual thing and it could be a net positive for UK’s defense, which went 96 plays in the loss to Southern Miss, struggling for much of the second half.
“We’re not in panic mode or anything like that,” Love said. “We know that last week was not our best showing and that we can do a lot better and that’s what we will do.”
Outside linebacker Denzil Ware was the one who called the meeting to “let us all know he has our back and we’re in this together and it’s not a single effort,” Love added.
Stoops called the meeting “nothing major,” adding that those meetings happen on a regular basis.
He was impressed that Ware, who made his share of mistakes in the loss, was willing to take a leadership role and get everyone together.
“Denzil means very well,” Stoops said. “And I think Denzil will be the first one to tell you he’s talking to himself too because he made some critical, critical errors. So I don’t think that was anything about pointing fingers. It was about, ‘Let’s get on the same page and let’s get our act together.’”
News and notes
When asked if he expected to have defensive back (and key special teams contributor) Blake McClain and linebacker Josh Allen back from their respective injuries, Stoops said Thursday that he did.
▪ The ongoing punter battle between Bryan Kirshe and Grant McKinniss continues, but Stoops said his plan is to go with McKinniss for now, “but we’ll see what happens.”
Stoops was pleased with the “hidden yards” UK gained on special teams last week. “Our cover units were as good as they’ve been,” he said. “When you look at our kickoff return versus the kickoff and vice versa, you look at the hidden yardage on that, we had big returns and a chance for big ones.”
UK scores, schedule
(Home games in capital letters)
Sept. 3: SOUTHERN MISS (L, 44-35)
Sept. 10: At Florida, 3:30
Sept. 17: NEW MEXICO STATE, 4
Sept. 24: SOUTH CAROLINA
Oct. 1: At Alabama
Oct. 8: VANDERBILT
Oct. 22: MISSISSIPPI STATE
Oct. 29: At Missouri
Nov. 5: GEORGIA
Nov. 12: At Tennessee
Nov. 19: AUSTIN PEAY
Nov. 26: At Louisville