UK Football

There's one streak Kentucky football doesn't want to let go of

Florida's Jonathan Bostic, right, intercepted a pass against Tennessee on Saturday. He is one of four Gators with at least two picks this season. UF has forced 12 turnovers.
Florida's Jonathan Bostic, right, intercepted a pass against Tennessee on Saturday. He is one of four Gators with at least two picks this season. UF has forced 12 turnovers. AP

Kentucky is the only team in the country to have played three games without a turnover.

Florida is tied for the national lead in turnovers forced with 12.

You figure something's got to give when the two teams hook up on Saturday night.

"It's a great matchup," Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips said. "I was looking at the conference stats, and we're second in the league in turnover margin. You would think a team that hasn't turned it over in three games would be top in the conference, but we're not because they've created a lot of turnovers."

UK's ball security can be attributed to several factors. Number one, the Cats have an experienced fifth-year quarterback in Mike Hartline. The coaches also put a renewed emphasis on it during fall camp. Phillips conducted a "turnover circuit" in which the defense had to try to force turnovers while the offense had to protect the ball.

"Good fortune has also been a big part of it," UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "We haven't had any balls pop out on the ground or thrown any tipped balls for picks."

Hartline has always been good about throwing the ball away when nothing is available, and he hasn't tried to force many balls into tight coverage this year. The UK running backs haven't put the ball on the ground yet, either. Phillips said the lack of tipped passes comes from the offensive line forcing defensive linemen to keep their hands down.

UK has some gaudy offensive statistics: They're second in the Southeastern Conference in scoring offense (44.3) and total offense (497.3), and Derrick Locke leads the league in rushing (124.0).

But the Wildcats haven't faced a team like the Gators. Florida put five players from last year's defense into the first three rounds of the NFL Draft but has continued its ball-hawking ways. Senior safety Ahmad Black leads the SEC in picks with three, and three other players have two: Janoris Jenkins, Jonathan Bostic and Jeremy Brown.

"It's funny how the big, fast physical teams always create turnovers," Sanders said.

Black picked off Hartline and scored from 40 yards out two years ago as a true freshman during Florida's 63-5 win over UK at The Swamp. Hartline is a different quarterback now and says he has no plans of pulling back.

"You still have to be aggressive and try and make plays down the field," he said. "But you have to recognize where those guys are at. They move faster, they play better position, and you've just got to be more aware of what you see and what play is called."

Locke said he is eager to see how Kentucky's offense handles the step up in competition.

"It'll show whether we can compete or not," Locke said. "Everybody wants to know how good our offense can be against an SEC opponent, so we'll see how it goes."

While the Cats have been extremely careful with the ball, they haven't been as good at avoiding flags. They're ninth in the league in penalty yards (52.0), and Locke said that needs to be cleaned up to have a chance to win at Florida.

"With this game, our margin for error goes down this much," Locke said. "A pick or a turnover or a blocked punt, a false start, that'll get you beat real quick. We can't have wasted plays. Every play has to be a positive one. If we do that, we've got a chance."

So if the Cats plan to end their 23-game losing streak against the Gators, extending their turnover-free streak will go a long way.

"I've never been on a team that hasn't put the ball on the ground — or turned it over — in three straight games," Phillips said. "I'd like to be on one that hasn't done it in four, too."

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