LEXINGTON, Ky. — For once, Kentucky isn’t being asked about whether it can end The Streak against Florida.
The Wildcats face more questions about themselves after blowing another big lead in their opener last Saturday night against Southern Mississippi than about ending their futility against the Gators.
Kentucky’s 35-10 second quarter lead — which it built on three turnovers and four Drew Barker touchdown passes — was erased as the Golden Eagles scored 34 unanswered points en route to the 44-35 upset. Instead of building much-needed momentum for Saturday’s nationally televised Southeastern Conference opener at Florida (1-0), Kentucky looks to avoid an 0-2 start and extending its losing streak against the Gators to 30 games. Florida’s streak versus the Wildcats is the nation’s longest active over a major opponent in an annual series.
Kentucky will be facing a Gators team in The Swamp with something to prove after Florida fell out of the Top 25 following its underwhelming 24-7 victory against UMass.
But after some close games against Florida the past two seasons, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops believes his team is capable of finally closing the deal.
“If we go execute and play the very best that we can, then we will have a great opportunity,” Stoops said Monday. “And if we don’t, then we will have no chance.”
A lot depends on if the Wildcats can put their missed opportunity behind them.
Kentucky’s defense is facing much of the scrutiny after blowing a big lead for the second straight game, including last season’s finale against in-state rival Louisville. The Wildcats allowed the Cardinals to score 31 unanswered points in a 38-24 loss last November and the Wildcats once again were not bowl eligible after the loss.
Saturday’s promising start toward at least a six-win season began unraveling just before halftime as Southern Miss answered Kentucky’s final TD with a quick score of its own. After that, it was all about the Golden Eagles — who controlled the ball, the clock, forced three turnovers and outgained Kentucky 261-22 in the second half.
Though Stoops said improvement is needed on a defense already lacking depth, he suggested that sustained offensive possessions could keep defenders from getting worn down.
“We had 10 possessions of under three plays,” Stoops said, “so, your defense is going to be on the field and we just got to find a way to respond. We just got to do a better job of mixing in our depth and getting some guys in there because that’s a lot of possessions and they did a really good job of keeping us off balance.”
Despite the collapse and lack of postseason appearances, Stoops remains adamant about changing the program’s losing mindset. He said players have reverted to bad habits when facing adversity but stressed the positives in the season opener that helped Kentucky jump out to the big lead — such as the passing game and opportunistic defense. Now, he is reminding players about the importance of finishing the job.
“We’ll show them all the things we did well, all the things we need to do better,” Stoops said, “but I don’t think it will be hard to get them motivated and get them going.”
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org