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Cats take their shots, but Gators too much to handle

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Joe Mansour took this flip from Jared Leet 25 yards for UK's lone touchdown in a 24-7 loss to Florida. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Joe Mansour took this flip from Jared Leet 25 yards for UK's lone touchdown in a 24-7 loss to Florida. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
UK's coaching staff had two weeks to watch tape of Florida's dominant defense, so they knew exactly how monumental the task the Wildcats were set to face would be.

Because a young Kentucky offense was going against arguably the nation's top defense, Mark Stoops devised a unique game plan. Recognizing that lining up and beating the Gators and sustaining long drives would be unlikely, Stoops looked for opportunities to move the ball in chunks.

"Out of respect for their defense, knowing that we were going to have a hard time moving the ball consistently," Stoops said. "So we had to take some shots."

It didn't take long to find one such chance.

After Florida scored on a punishing 13-play, 93-yard drive to open the game, UK found itself in Gator territory. On fourth-and-nine from the Florida 25, the Cats were in range for a field goal that would cut the deficit to 7-3. Stoops, however, never had any intention of kicking it.

Instead, holder Jared Leet flipped over his head to kicker Joe Mansour. Mansour - whom Stoops said had the option to either run or pass depending on how Florida defended the play - sprinted 25 yards to the corner of the end zone for a touchdown.

"It was something we worked all week," Stoops said. "We've been greasing it up."

Mansour - who flashed distinctly un-kicker-like speed - was the beneficiary.

"We executed perfectly," Mansour said. "We practiced it and we went out on the field and they gave us a perfect look like we have been working in practice and we executed. We got a perfect snap from Kelly Mason and a perfect toss from Jared Leet and I ran for the touchdown."

The play set the tone for the rest of the evening, but not necessarily in the way the Cats were hoping. It was the first of a handful of plays in which Stoops and Brown made calls they likely wouldn't try in other games, but the rest didn't work nearly so well as UK (1-3, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) fell to Florida (3-1, 2-0 SEC), 24-7.

"We rolled the dice a couple times, which I felt like we had to coming into the game just because of some of our matchups, and it backfired," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said.

The two most notable rolls of the dice came in the second half as UK tried to overcome a 21-7 halftime deficit. On the Cats' first drive out of the locker room, they faced a third-and-one at their own 31-yard line. Rather than play for a short gain and conversion, Brown gambled with a reverse to Javess Blue on a play UK practiced for two weeks. It was undone by poor blocking and Blue lost three yards.

Then, following a potentially momentum-shifting interception and long return by Josh Forrest, Brown dialed up a jet sweep on which Daryl Collins was supposed to throw back to quarterback Jalen Whitlow. Instead, Collins held onto the ball when the play was there and was sacked for an 11-yard loss. Maxwell Smith would throw deep to the end zone on the next play and was intercepted. UK would never again seriously threaten the Gators.

"We had a few opportunities to make it a game, and didn't make them," Stoops said. "It was going to be hard. We knew that going into it. Felt like we had a few opportunities here and there. Just didn't capitalize on the plays."

UK hung around for much of the night in spite of Florida's dominance at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The Gators rode their supremacy in the trenches to a 402-173 edge in total yards, a 246-48 margin in rushing yards and a 38:09-21:51 final edge in time of possession.

Defensively, however, the Cats didn't yield. Florida managed just 149 yards and three points after halftime.

"You get worn down, but I don't think our guys ever quit," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "They were playing as hard as they could the whole game and I was proud of them."

Brown was left a little more frustrated following the performance of his group. UK ran just 47 offensive plays - the fewest Brown can remember for a unit he's coached - and was unable to establish a rhythm with either Smith or Whitlow at quarterback.

Even so, Brown found himself reflecting on a productive two weeks of practice leading up to the Florida game. The Cats may not have shown it Saturday, but they are improving.

"I think we started three freshmen and a junior-college transfer at wide out and a true freshman at running back," Brown said. "And that's who we are. We gotta keep getting those guys better and I'm not discouraged. Obviously we've got to get those guys to play better, but it's not going to happen overnight."

Stoops has been aware of that fact since before he even arrived in Lexington. He and his staff are working nonstop to raise UK's talent level through recruiting, but Stoops has no complaints when it comes to the way his current players are approaching the "process" about which he so often talks.

"I think we'll go back, watch the film, look at the things we did good, the things we did bad," Stoops said. "We'll keep on building on the things we did good and try to eliminate mistakes.

"That's what I like about this group. We'll get back to work on Monday and they'll be ready to go. They'll prepare to execute the offensive, defensive and special teams game plan and we'll just keep on working."

Stoops' plan is to eventually get his team to the point where it can compete on a level playing field with the likes of Florida. That likely won't happen this season, but UK won't quit taking its shots against the SEC's elite.

"We know where we're at as a program," Stoops said. "But we're going to keep on banging. We're going to keep on working. We're going to keep on preparing to win. One of these days when we make enough plays to win, we'll win."  

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