UK Football

Cats looking for cracks in Florida's defensive wall

Coach Urban Meyer, quarterback Tim Tebow and their high-scoring spread formation generate most of the hype for top-ranked Florida, but the offense might be the Gators' second-best unit.

Defensive coordinator Charlie Strong's unit has surrendered just one touchdown through three games this season. Every other team has allowed at least two.

The Gators have NFL prospects scattered throughout their defense. Carlos Dunlap (6-foot-6, 290 pounds) and Jermaine Cunningham are both terrors at defensive end. Brandon Spikes is regarded by many as the nation's best linebacker. And the secondary is stacked thanks to an All-America candidate at corner (Joe Haden) and a pair of stellar safeties in Ahmad Black and Major Wright.

"Their defense is how they won national championships," UK head coach of offense Joker Phillips said. "Even when they had a great offense, the years they won it all it was because the defense was great. And this year, they've got a dominating player at every level. Defensive end, linebacker, secondary, they've got it all."

Through two games, UK ranks in the middle of the pack in the Southeastern Conference in most major categories: scoring offense (36.5, sixth); total offense (417.0 sixth); rushing offense (206.5, sixth), and passing offense (210.5, seventh).

But those numbers were compiled against Miami (Ohio) and Louisville. Moving the ball against the Gators is a whole different animal.

When asked what his team has to do to generate points, UK Coach Rich Brooks rattled off the usual: run the ball, take care of the ball, convert third downs. Beyond that, the Cats have to find a way to win some one-on-one battles against the talented Gators.

"You just have to find a way to defeat a big, physical, athletic defensive team that tackles well," Brooks said.

The running game will be pivotal. When UK knocked off No. 1 LSU in 2007, the Cats ran the ball 41 times for 125 yards. While that's barely 3 yards a carry, it was still enough to keep the LSU defense guessing. That helped Andre Woodson go 21-for-38 passing for 250 yards and three touchdowns.

Last week, Tennessee had some success running the ball early against Florida, and while it didn't result in a win, the Vols were still in the game in the fourth quarter.

"You've got to run the football," Phillips said. "You've got to be able to run it enough to establish a threat. We didn't run it great against LSU, but it established a threat and kept (LSU) honest, and then we could throw the ball with some hard play-action."

UK quarterback Mike Hartline said the Cats need to catch Florida in one-on-one situations and "take our shots."

"We have guys who can run downfield and make the catch," he said. "I don't feel like we'd be wasting a play by throwing it downfield. When we do it now, somebody can jump and make a play. The defense will respect us if we'll throw it deep, even if we don't complete, so I think taking shots will definitely help us regardless."

Hartline said the Gators' speed, talent and experience allow them to confuse offenses with lots of different looks, as the down linemen can stunt, slant or drop back into coverage as part of a zone blitz.

"Florida has a lot of 3, 4-year starters who have been there," Hartline said. "They can scheme up and do a lot of different things normal defenses wouldn't do. You've got to be on point and find ways to slow them down and make them more conventional."

While the Louisville game turned out closer than many expected, the UK offense moved the ball.

The Cats scored on five of their 12 drives, missed a field goal on another, and botched another scoring opportunity in the two-minute drill. Kentucky had as many turnovers (three) as punts.

"That was encouraging," Phillips said. "That's one of our positives. We turned it over way too much. But we didn't have too many missed assignments. And when we didn't turn it over, we moved the ball."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments