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'Ready for the moment'

CRAWFORD | After 42-21 LSU win, Kentucky players had Georgia on their minds

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Josaih Hayes

Kentucky nose guard Josaih Hayes celebrates recovering a fumble on LSU's first drive, setting the defensive tone for the Wildcats.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – The story, of course, is what comes next. Generally, after bullying a traditional power like LSU, Kentucky players would be eager to talk about it. After thumping a program two years removed from a national championship 42-21 to improve to 6-0 for the first time since the Truman Administration, you'd figure they'd be eager to tout the accomplishment.

Instead, No. 16-ranked Kentucky's players were in the locker room, glued to the television. They were watching Texas A&M put the finishing touches on an upset of top-ranked Alabama, which leaves the Wildcats one of only two unbeaten teams in the Southeastern Conference, and their next opponent, Georgia, the likely incumbent of the No. 1 ranking when the two teams meet next week.

As if the game needed to get any bigger. The 3:30 p.m. CBS matchup was already likely to play a large role in deciding the SEC East Division championship and a trip to the SEC Championship game in Atlanta. Alabama's fall just threw another log on the hype.

So it was that after Kentucky pushed LSU around for 60 minutes, the page was turned faster than you can say "Orgeron."

Nobody stormed the field. Forget burning couches. At best, maybe an ottoman got singed after this one. The brief moment of chest pounding came after a late sack, when the Kroger Field speakers began to blare Garth Brooks singing, "Calling Baton Rouge," and the sellout crowd roared.

WDRB's Eric Crawford reports from Kentucky's victory over LSU on Oct. 9, 2021 in Kroger Field.

But by the time the crowd had left and the congratulations had happened, Kentucky players were already thinking about trying to find Georgia's number. About 45 minutes after the victory, they wandered into the interview room.

"As soon as I sat in the locker room, I was already thinking about Georgia," Kentucky linebacker DeAndre Square said. "Because now, I don't know how much time I have here left. You don't know if it's your last chance. It's a very important week. I'm already thinking about it. . . In past years, we would get hung up on big wins. But this year is just different. We know we can win big games. We just have to focus on preparing."

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said he was proud of that approach from his team. It proved in its response to beating No. 10 Florida that it can handle prosperity.

"I told you guys in the press conference right here on Monday that I felt confident that they would just have a great week," Stoops said of his team. "And I really did. When I went in there Monday afternoon with the team, they were really locked in. They just were ready to get forward or look forward for this week, and I feel the same way in the locker room right there. They are happy. They celebrated a little bit, but they are excited about a big opportunity next week."

It's not the first time Kentucky has been in this position. Three years ago, a 5-0 Kentucky team welcomed Georgia to Lexington in a game with SEC East championship implications. Kentucky was ranked No. 12 in the nation, but the No. 7 Bulldogs were never threatened in a 34-17 win.

Square was among those on the field that day, and he says that experience could help the Wildcats when they venture between the hedges in Athens this weekend.

"I was there on that 2018 team. I've been talking about that for a minute," he said. "I feel like we had a nice amount of star power, but I don't think we were ready for the moment. I feel like we'll be ready for the moment. It's a big week. The guys are ready. We've been ready since the season started to attack every day. We've got a good bunch. We trust each other."

Despite the magnitude of Saturday's game, what the Wildcats did against LSU shouldn't be lost. It was the most points a Kentucky team had ever scored in regulation against the Tigers. Quarterback Will Levis threw only three incompletions in 17 passes, and three of his 14 completions went for touchdowns.

The Wildcats racked up 311 yards on the ground. Chris Rodriguez ran for 147 yards. Kavosiey Smoke ran for 107. A Kentucky offense that had been anemic in recent weeks sprang to life, piling up 475 yards on LSU.

And Kentucky's defense set an early tone. Square forced a fumble on LSU's first possession. The Tigers were scoreless at halftime, and trailed 21-0 before the offense had any success. Kentucky sacked LSU quarterback Max Johnson four times.

"It was definitely our most complete offensive game all season," Levis said. "We have been talking about winning close games, it's awesome to kind of have that comfort zone . . . just going up 35-7 is awesome, and we've got to start winning games like that because we know we can, and we’ve seen that offensively at this level we have to keep striving to do that each week. . . . This was a good confidence booster going into next week for sure. If we had a game this week like we did last week offensively, we definitely would've been not as energetic, I guess. It was good to see us bounce back.”

And of course, the talk always comes back to next week. So be it. Georgia and the top defense in the nation await, and an opportunity for Kentucky to do something it hasn't done in its modern football history.

"It's awesome, that's why I came here," Levis said. "It's why you come to the SEC. It's stuff that you dream of when you make decisions like that. It's one of the environments you think of when you think of SEC football, Sanford Stadium in Athens. Really excited to go down there and play the best team in the country. So we are going to have a good week at practice, and hopefully we are going to find some ways to get the ball moving and put some points on the board against them.”

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