For most of its grueling 26-game losing skid to Florida, Kentucky has been confronted by an offense capable of scoring points in bunches.
In its latest attempt to end the nation’s longest continuous losing streak, however, UK will face a Gator squad that specializes in keeping the opponent out of the end zone.
No. 20 Florida (2-1, 1-0 SEC) brings the SEC’s top-rated defense to Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday, having surrendered only 44 points through its first three games. The Gators lead the league in both rush defense (55.3 yards per game) and pass defense (157 ypg) and rank No. 2 nationally in yards allowed per game behind only Michigan State.
“They're very good defensively,” UK head coach Mark Stoops said during his weekly Monday press luncheon, “as good as maybe anybody will play this year.”
Kentucky (1-2, 0-0 SEC) is coming off an open date on the schedule, but faced the nation’s No. 3 defense in its last game. The Wildcats were able to move the ball at times in a 27-13 loss to Louisville, gaining 376 total yards, but hurt themselves with numerous self-inflicted mistakes and finished the game 0-for-13 on third down.
Enter the Gators, who are No. 1 nationally in third-down conversion defense, allowing only seven first downs out of 37 attempts (19 percent) on the season.
“Their front four, they're very disruptive,” Stoops said. “Very dominant up front, and their secondary is fabulous. They cover the heck out of you. They're very good players in the secondary. I've known quite a few of those guys for some time, very good.”
A newcomer has also given the Gators some additional bite in the secondary. Vernon Hargreaves, who was the nation’s No. 1 defensive back prospect in 2013, has two interceptions in his first three college games. He was recruited by Stoops when the UK coach was defensive coordinator at Florida State.
“He's a great talent,” Stoops said.
Florida is coming off a 31-17 win over Tennessee which saw the Gators force two fumbles and pick off four Volunteer passes.
Asked what he took away from watching that game, Stoops said: “You can't turn the ball over against the Gators. They feast on that. Again, they're very good and very disruptive defensively, but you can't turn it over. You've got to be very smart and very conscious of the ball.”
The Wildcats have only been picked off once this season on 100 pass attempts, but have been hurt by four fumbles.
The matchup should be a good test for Kentucky’s new offense, which ranks No. 25 nationally at 490 yards per game. The Wildcats have been able to run the ball well in each game this season, averaging 213.3 yards on the ground, and expect to have starting quarterback Max Smith back at full strength on Saturday after dealing with shoulder soreness that caused him to exit the Louisville game.
Kentucky’s new depth chart featured freshman JoJo Kemp, a Florida native, bracketed as the No. 1 running back this week alongside senior Raymond Sanders. Kemp leads the team in rushing with 167 yards on only 18 attempts, picking up 9.3 yards per carry.