UK building confidence through adversity heading into Florida matchup

For 30 minutes, it appeared Kentucky might be headed for not just a road victory at South Carolina, but a blowout in fact.

The Wildcats were dominant in the first half in building a 24-7 lead, but the Gamecocks answered back in the second. Thoughts of a comfortable win were long gone as UK made a handful of big plays late to hold on.

Fans surely could have done without the nervous moments, but Mark Stoops sees a silver lining.

“Any time you go through adversity and win a tough game, it helps you grow,” Stoops said.

The adversity didn’t just hit late either.

Pinned deep on UK’s first possession, Patrick Towles fired a strike to Dorian Baker. With only grass and one defender in front of him, Baker dropped the pass. Two plays later, Towles was hurried and threw an interception to set South Carolina up with first-and-goal from the 1-yard line.

Less than three minutes in the Cats found themselves down 7-0, but they didn’t flinch. Towles completed 5-of-6 passes for 57 yards on the ensuing possession, including a clutch 19-yard fourth-down conversion to Garrett Johnson, and Mikel Horton finished the 80-yard drive with an eight-yard touchdown run.

“I just think the win, the way it unfolded,” Stoops said, “we talked about that the week before, but to do it against an SEC opponent on the road, with the adversity from the first possession, going down 7-0, and the adversity of having the momentum totally flip on you and be able to overcome that and to win it says a lot about our team and the mental toughness and the focus that we have and the confidence.”

That confidence also manifests itself in the fact that the Cats weren’t happy with the way they played in nearly squandering a big second-half lead for the second week in a row. South Carolina outgained UK 266-72 after halftime and the Cats managed only two points on an after-touchdown conversion attempt on defense.

“The good thing is we can play a whole lot better and I think we’re going to need to starting this week against a very good Florida team,” Stoops said.

The Gators have a 2-0 record identical to UK’s after surviving a close call against East Carolina in a 31-24 home victory. Led by first-year head coach Jim McElwain, Florida is athletic as ever.

“Well, just like what you would think from most Florida teams,” Stoops said. “They have some real dynamic playmakers in (Demarcus) Robinson, the wide receiver and (Kelvin) Taylor, the running back.”

Robinson torched UK to the tune of 15 receptions for 216 yards and two touchdowns in a 36-30 triple-overtime Florida win a season ago, while Kelvin Taylor has rushing touchdowns in each of his first two games.

Stoops sees similar giftedness on the other side of the ball, headlined by Vernon Hargreaves. McElwain termed the all-everything cornerback questionable, but Stoops expects him to play.

“You just see a very good hard-nosed football team,” Stoops said. “I see disruptive guys up front, like usual. They have some guys that look very sudden and very quick on the defensive line. I know they have good cover guys.”

More than any Florida player, the media was more interested in asking Stoops about the 28-game losing streak Kentucky has at the hands of the Gators. Stoops, however, doesn’t see much point in worrying about anything other than the two teams that will be on the field Saturday.

“We know we can play with Florida,” Stoops said. “I said it a year ago. I just felt like we were getting better and had some opportunities. This year, again, we have great respect for Florida, obviously – they’ve been a great program for a long time – (but) we really just concentrate on ourselves and let’s get better and let’s do the work and let’s prepare to go win the game.”