CRAWFORD | Kentucky takes aim at golden opportunity to end Flori - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Kentucky takes aim at golden opportunity to end Florida streak

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WDRB photo by Eric Crawford WDRB photo by Eric Crawford

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The streak is 30 years old, and it is three decades old for a reason. Florida has been a giant in college football. Kentucky has been in perpetual adolescence.

I don’t know whether Kentucky will end that streak when the teams play Saturday night in Kroger Field. But I do know it has perhaps its best chance in 30 years. Florida opened as a four-point favorite but now is favored by just 1.5. Its season numbers, if you look at them, don’t inspire fear. Yet the Gators are still the Gators, in some ways. They are ranked No. 20 in the nation. And the streak is the streak.

“I do feel the importance of it,” Stoops said. “I’ve always accepted that as I’ve accepted rivalries and you know all the negative streaks that you all are so good at telling me every week and all those things. It’s true, I mean I take it personally, I do. I care about our fan base and I do care about the history even if I wasn’t here. I want to make our people happy and supportive of our team, and past players and all the tradition, the whole deal. So, it’s important. It’s part of what motivates you every day, to get up and do the best job you can.”

Seriously, what would we in the media write about if not for the streak when it comes to Kentucky-Florida? Where was I on Nov. 15. 1986, Rick Bozich asked me this week on our Sports Page Live webcast. I was a freshman at the University of Louisville, listening to the game on the radio in Threlkeld Hall, or somewhere. I don’t quite remember where I was. I do remember I had the game on the radio.

Surely, the game means more to fans and media than to players, who rarely care what happened 30 days ago, let alone 30 years.

But the mindset with this UK team and coaching staff is different from many I’ve seen in the past. The first UK-Florida game for which I was a columnist was No. 20 in the streak history. Florida won the game 26-7, but UK led 7-6 late in the first half and trailed only 12-7 into the fourth quarter. I wrote afterward that this Kentucky team had its shots, but too often shot itself in the foot – backing itself up with penalties, failing to recover a fumble that bounced right up to a defender, you know, the usual. I was surprised over the next couple of days to get email from fans saying I’d been too hard on the Wildcats, that they’d played a respectable game.

I also was surprised that the only player who ran, not walked, off the field that day in Gainesville was Randall Cobb. He was fuming. Nobody else seemed to be.

There was a feeling around UK football then that is not so much around the program – at least among players – today. It’s the “here we go again” feeling. I honestly believe it’s one reason the Wildcats have played better of late away from home than in Kroger Field (RIP Commonwealth Stadium). Kroger Field will be sold out for Saturday’s game against Florida. (One of the next steps for UK is to play in such a way that the “here we go again” atmosphere dissipates from home games.)

Kentucky has not played sterling football this season, especially in its home win against Eastern Kentucky. If you watch that game, you come away thinking that this Florida streak is in no jeopardy.

But Mark Stoops has done a good thing with this UK team. He has instilled a resilience that I haven’t always seen before. Bad things happen in a football season. Bad plays. And they don’t just happen at Kentucky, they happen to Alabama and Florida and every one else – just maybe not as often.

Stoops, though, has enabled his players to absorb those things and keep moving forward. If you’re going to fall, fall forward, as Walter Payton used to say.

“There is going to be big plays (against you) in the run game and pass game, it’s going to happen,” Stoops said this week. “But you know I just feel confident that whatever happens, we can get corrected and move on to the next play. That feels very good. It feels different in that regard. I feel like we have guys that take great pride in the way we are going about our work. . . . Guys are going to make mistakes and everybody is human and we all accept that. We are all in this together and we move on. But I also see a great sense of pride of when nonsenses are going on and things that we can control are happening. The guys are not accepting that and that is growth to me.”

“We are trying to be perfect,” Stoops said. “But the minute bad things happen, we've been there before. Just get back, regroup. Fix the problems and move on to the next play. Our team has that mentality and I love that about them.”

Stoops’ longest-term project at UK, beyond culture change, has been building the defense. While it’s still early in the season, some progress appears to have been made.

UK is third in the nation against the run, allowing only 57 yards per game. The defense has recovered four of the five fumbles it has forced, ranking second in the nation. No team has rushed for 100 yards against the Wildcats this season. The last time three UK opponents in a row failed to gain 100 on the ground was in 2008.

And UK has done that despite not being led in tackles by linebacker Jordan Jones (who missed the South Carolina game with an injury) and safety Mike Edwards not accounting for a majority of the tackles. Instead, Stoops has developed depth on defense, using 23 defensive players in each of the first three games.

“There are a lot of things that are different,” Stoops said of his run defense. “It always starts with technique, you’ve heard me talk about that.  I think (defensive line coach) Derrick LeBlanc has done a great job with the technique part of it. I think (defensive coordinator) Matt House has done a great job with the structure of the defense, our position on the football. We were determined as I’ve mentioned many times to get some things fixed and it starts with just the overall structure and position on the ball. It comes from experience, it comes from guys being around, it comes from strength and depth. There’s a lot of things that go into it. But, you know the number one thing it starts with is pride. The guys have a great sense of pride about them to do things the right way.”

But Stoops, too, takes pride in establishing the Kentucky defense as a centerpiece of the team and something that garners respect. It’s not easy to go from coordinating a Florida State defense that was one of the most feared in the nation to a Kentucky team that is giving up video game yards. At long last, Stoops can perhaps take some satisfaction in the way his defense is playing.

“Darn right I do. I do,” Stoops said this week. “There will be challenges ahead, just like this week. It is what it is, and we embrace that and we are going to try our very best every week and I appreciate our team’s effort to get things fixed and we’re going to go watch that film for hours again today and see the good things we did and bad things and try to get some things corrected as we move forward.”

Florida’s numbers, as mentioned, aren’t fearsome. The Gators are No. 101 in the nation in total defense. They’re No. 106 in run defense. If Kentucky can establish Benny Snell and some of its other backs, it could be in for a celebration.

But Stoops doesn’t by the notion that Florida is down. If the streak does end, he knows it won’t be easy. If you think the Wildcats care catching a break with a weakened Florida team, he has a message for you.

“You’re crazy,” he said. “I’ve watched them play and they are the same Florida team. They are a very, very good football team. Don’t you put words in my mouth. But again, like always, it is really about us and our preparation and how we play. Our team heard that all last week. All we need to be is the best version of ourselves. We need to worry about us and how good we can play.”

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