UK Football

‘All offseason, this has fueled us.’ UK’s 2017 loss to Florida left a mark.

Florida kicker Eddy Pineiro signaled a “Gator Chomp” after he connected on the extra point that gave his team a 28-27 lead on Sept. 23, 2017, in Lexington.
Florida kicker Eddy Pineiro signaled a “Gator Chomp” after he connected on the extra point that gave his team a 28-27 lead on Sept. 23, 2017, in Lexington.

The Kentucky and Florida coaches are quick to note that 31 years of futility or dominance — depending what side they are on — is not on the current players for either team.

But a 28-27 loss at Kroger Field still does feel personal to UK players who saw a 27-14 lead with 11:33 to go evaporate as the Gators scored twice in the final eight minutes to win it, going ahead on a 5-yard pass with 43 seconds to play.

“It definitely stuck with me this whole offseason,” tight end C.J. Conrad said this week of that loss as the Cats prepare to meet No. 25 Florida at The Swamp on Saturday.

“I was upset like everyone else because I thought we played well enough to win that game, so I also think it’s giving us a lot of confidence going into this year just knowing that we had that game and we lost it,” Conrad added. “At the end of the day, all offseason, this has fueled us. It’s finally that time and we’re excited.”

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops doesn’t bring it up much because the Cats are going against a different staff with some different personnel, but he doesn’t mind them using “whatever we need to use for motivation.”

The loss definitely left a mark, Darin Hinshaw said.

“It was a game where we went in, fought our tails off, came up a little bit short and it hurt,” UK’s co-offensive coordinator said. “Our team hurt from that and we put ourselves in a position to win and we didn’t come out ahead. So we have a lot of motivation to go out and play.”

Knowing how close they came to breaking the 31-game losing streak and knowing that the wounds were self-inflicted and fixable does give the Cats a quiet confidence, linebacker Kash Daniel said.

“Every Saturday, college football is crazy,” he said. “Things happen. Last year for us to come up and lose the way we did and how short we were and knowing we had so many mistakes that could’ve been corrected during the game that we didn’t do. … We’re very confident in how we’re going to approach this game.”

’It’s a chess match’

Even though Florida has a new head coach, Kentucky didn’t have to go far to get footage for scouting purposes. Gators Coach Dan Mullen is a familiar foe the Cats’ coaches have faced yearly since they arrived when he was at Mississippi State.

This summer, UK defensive coaches studied last year’s Florida film for personnel purposes but not much else. They studied the Bulldogs’ film for game planning.

“We don’t expect them to vary very much from what he did at Mississippi State,” Coach Mark Stoops said. “We’ll be prepared for all that.”

It’s a totally different offense than what the Gators were running a season ago, using many more run-pass options and utilizing the quarterback run game with Feleipe Franks.

“They gave him just enough reads and quarterback runs where he was comfortable in his decisions,” Stoops said of the signal caller. “Threw some very accurate passes. He’s got some good weapons to throw it to, so he just looked like a year older. Very comfortable.”

On the other side of the ball, UK’s Eddie Gran has been game planning for Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham for a long time, most recently when he was at Louisville and then last season with the Bulldogs.

“You go all the way back to the Louisville game to see how he attacked us and how we attacked them,” the UK offensive coordinator said. “It’s all the same. He’s gonna have wrinkles. There’s gonna be stuff that we have not seen. There will be stuff he has not seen. It’s a chess match. It’s awesome.”

Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson (3) passed the ball while pressured by Central Michigan defenders during the season opener. Alex Slitz

Using their inside voices?

Anyone within earshot of the Kentucky football practice facilities knew quickly that it is Florida week.

The unmistakable “Go Gators” and Jaws-type music blared from the loud speakers during parts of practice.

It was UK’s way of preparing its offense, led by a quarterback getting ready to make his first road start in the Southeastern Conference, for the rowdy sounds of The Swamp.

Even when the piped in crowd noise was quiet, UK’s coaches demanded that the players whisper to each other like they were inside the W.T. Young Library nearby.

“There’s no yelling at practice whatsoever,” quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said he instructed starting QB Terry Wilson and backup Gunnar Hoak. “Anytime they talk to anyone at practice, it’s a whisper. That’s what it’s going to sound like in a game.

“Let’s act like even if we don’t have crowd noise in a (segment) if you have to go talk to Lynn (Bowden), you whisper to Lynn the whole time and it simulates what the game is going to be like.”

’We’re the new D-line’

There are no ones and twos on the depth chart for Kentucky’s interior defensive line.

Sure, there are a couple of players listed first on a piece of paper and a couple who run out on the field first, but that doesn’t matter.

“When you’re on the field, you’ve got to play like a one,” said line coach Derrick LeBlanc, who got big production out of backups on Saturday in the win over Central Michigan that included 17 tackles from seven different defensive linemen.

Four of those players had at least three tackles apiece, including senior nose guard Tymere Dubose, who had three tackles with two for a loss.

None of those four players started the game.

“Our strength is in the numbers,” said LeBlanc, whose team will be playing in the hot, humid swampy like conditions in Gainesville on Saturday. “It keeps us fresh and we have seven guys that can play,”

In the next few weeks, don’t be surprised to see the Cats’ defensive line depth expand to eight players seeing significant snaps as true freshman Marquan McCall continues to develop.

Having fresh legs along the line is key, defensive coordinator Matt House said on Wednesday.

“That’s one of the things right now that you have to do in college football is develop depth so those guys don’t get wore down — wore down in the game and wore down in the season — especially in our league,” House said. “It’s such a line of scrimmage league.”

While there were some missed assignments and some big plays the defensive line left on the field, it was a solid first showing, the coaches said.

“I always talk to them about playing fast, playing physical and playing smart,” LeBlanc said. “I think they’ve kind of grasped that identity and they are. Right now they’re feeling good about themselves and they’re playing that way.”

Dubose called the group a bunch of “go-getters,” who are going about proving some naysayers wrong.

“They’re always talking about how the old D-line was,” the senior said. “We’re the new D-line. We’re trying to create our identity ourselves. … We listen to it, but we use it as motivation.”