Now that the first one is out of the way with a wildly imperfect but successful opening to the 2018 season, Kentucky football can get down to the matter at hand. The Cats can go ghost hunting.
Or you could call it Gator hunting, as the case might be. After Saturday’s 35-20 victory over visiting Central Michigan on Saturday at Kroger Field, Mark Stoops and Company can turn their attention to trying to finally snap that aggravating, terrifying, logic-defying 31-game losing streak to the Florida Gators, a streak filled with the ghastly ghosts of losses of the recent past.
Like last year, when UK failed to cover receivers on two separate occasions that resulted in Florida touchdowns and helped turn a 27-14 Kentucky lead into an excruciating 28-27 loss. Or 2014, with the help of a missed official’s call, when the Cats lost a 36-30 overtime heartbreaker in The Swamp.
“We’ll worry about that next week,” said Stoops on Saturday, not quite ready to turn the page to Week 2 quite yet.
After all, there is plenty to clean up from his sixth team’s initial effort of the season, specifically a first half in which the Cats turned the ball over four times, which led to 20 Central Michigan points. Brand new starting quarterback Terry Wilson started the gift-giving by losing a fumble on a first quarter running play. CMU capitalized with a field goal. Second quarter, Wilson threw an end zone interception. Central Michigan promptly drove 80 yards for a touchdown.
UK’s next play from scrimmage, wide receiver Lynn Bowden lost the ball on a screen pass, the football popping into the arms of the Chippewas’ Devonni Reed, who returned it 20 yards for a touchdown and a 17-7 Central Michigan lead. Later, Wilson tossed his second interception and the visitors happily kicked another field goal for a 20-14 advantage.
Out went Wilson with a bruised shoulder and in came Gunnar Hoak, the sophomore edged out by Touchdown Terry in the training camp quarterback competition. Taking over at his own 29-yard line with 55 seconds remaining, Hoak promptly engineered a 71-yard scoring drive. He hit wideout David Bouvier in perfect stride for a 24-yard score and a 21-20 Kentucky lead at halftime.
Kentucky did not turn the ball over again. And Central Michigan did not score again. The Chippewas ended up with 255 total yards — mere 97 in the second half — compared to 427 for the home team. “I was proud of the way the defense played,” Stoops said.
On offense, running backs Benny Snell and A.J. Rose each topped the 100-yard mark. Snell carried 20 times for 125 yards, including a 52-yard touchdown. Rose carried eight times for 104 yards, including a 55-yard touchdown.
Though Hoak started the second half, Wilson returned soon after. His play improved in the second half — “We cut down on the quarterbacks’ decision-making,” said quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw. “Tried to make it simpler.” — as the junior college transfer showed his ability to run the football and extend plays. Through the air, however, he completed 11 of 18 passes for 78 yards with the two picks.
Attendance was the other big story Saturday. The official count was 49,138, the smallest turnout for a home opener since 48,346 bothered to see Kentucky defeat Kent State in 2012 after UK lost 32-14 at Louisville the week before. By season’s end, the Cats were 2-10 and head coach Joker Phillips was out of a job.
It’s a different scenario now. These Cats have won seven games each of the last two seasons. They are coming off back-to-back bowl games. In their last 16 SEC games, they are a respectable 8-8. The problem is they haven’t been able to beat the league’s big boys, the bullies on the block. So fans are playing wait-and-see.
For Kentucky, Florida still qualifies as a big boy. The Gators are not the Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer Gators of old, but they boast a new head coach (Dan Mullen) who is 8-1 against UK, home-field advantage and the psychological advantage of a series win streak that stretches all the way back 1986.
Is the year UK finally beats the Gators, and kills off those ghosts?