Unbeaten Start Not Affecting UK's Focus
For two years, Mark Stoops wondered what it would be like to fly home after a victory as a head coach. For two years, Stoops challenged his Kentucky team to create that feeling so they could all find out together.
On Saturday, the Wildcats delivered, ending a 22-game road losing streak.
So, what was the verdict on that flight?
“The plane ride was kind of quiet once we got in there and situated and got home,” Stoops said.
The Cats, who moved to 2-0 with the win at South Carolina, did their celebrating in the locker room at Williams-Brice Stadium, and memorably so. A video of the team dancing to “Grove Street Party” has made the rounds all week. But by the time they were ready to head back to Lexington, things had calmed down.
Due to a mix of tiredness and anticipation of a game the following Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium, the flight was essentially like any other.
“Now it is another opportunity to get back to work and get better,” Stoops said.
The opportunity comes in the form of a matchup with Southeastern Conference Eastern division rival Florida. The Gators boast a 2-0 record identical to UK’s, but a 28-0 mark against the Cats dating back to 1986.
UK, in other words, won’t have to wait long for a chance to end another ignominious streak.
“I think it means a lot,” quarterback Patrick Towles said. “We erased a big one last week and I think it’d be great if we could do that again when we chalk it up on Saturday, but that’s not our prime focus.”
The prime focus for the Cats, instead, is playing their best game at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.
“I just think it comes down to improving as a football team and a football program,” Stoops said. “So we’re getting much better. We’re going to need to continue to improve this week with the big game against Florida.”
Improvement on offense has everything do with the second-half woes that have plagued the Cats. Through two games, UK has gained 610 yards in first halves and only 224 in second halves.
“The last two games, when we’re struggling, we’re stopping ourselves, we’re not really executing to where we can,” Towles said. “You saw in the first half on South Carolina: When we’re all clicking, we can be pretty scary. We’re just working on that to make sure we can do that for four straight quarters.”
To that end, Shannon Dawson isn’t overthinking anything. He’s going to bypass fire-and-brimstone speeches and overhauling of second-half game plans. The Cats were too close to success in both second halves for any of that.
“I told the guys on Monday when I talked to them, ‘Don’t make something out of nothing,” UK’s first-year offensive coordinator said. “ ‘Understand – watch the film, and understand that we were this close to doing the same thing the third quarter. This close.’ ”
The Gators, however, will be standing in the way of UK closing that tiny gap.
“Well they’re going to get in your face from what they’ve shown,” Dawson said. “They’re aggressive. They’re aggressive on the corners, aggressive up front, so we’ve got our work cut out for us as far as getting releases at receiver and pass protection across the board. We’d better be tuned in to what we’re doing because they’re going to stress you.”
No Florida player is more stressful for opponents than Vernon Hargreaves. The junior cornerback was an All-American in 2014, but sat out last week’s 31-24 win over East Carolina with a leg injury. Hargreaves, however, is probable against a Kentucky team with a deep and talented receiving corps.
On offense, Florida lacks the depth of Kentucky, but does feature a top-line talent in Demarcus Robinson that torched the Cats a season ago. Robinson had 15 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns against UK in a 36-30 triple-overtime win in Gainesville in 2014.
“Robinson is a very talented player,” defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. “He’s tall. He’s fast. They like to find ways to get him the ball. We’ve got to know where he’s at all times on the field. We’ve got to be able to defend him. He gets a lot of YAC yards, a lot of yards after catch. So after he catches it, we’ve got to swarm him and be firm tacklers with him.”
Who will throw the ball to Robinson is a bit of an unknown. Quarterbacks Will Grier and Treon Harris are both expected to play Saturday.
“Well, I think that Grier is more of a pocket passer guy, and Harris is athletic and can make plays with his feet,” Eliot said. “But they're both good at both of those things, though. Can't count Grier out from running and can't count Harris out from passing.”
The Cats, however, haven’t spent a lot of time adjusting their preparation based on facing two quarterbacks. Nor have they had to convince themselves they are capable of taking down the Gators.
With one streak down and another one in the Cats' sights, things really aren't changing for Kentucky.
“If anything I think our players know that we have moved beyond the belief, we know we can play. It’s just a matter of attention to detail,” Stoops said. “The big message this week is worrying about us continuing to get fundamentally better. That’s what’s always going to carry you. You can’t talk your way around wins you just have to get better and continue to push forward.”