LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — After Kentucky ended one of the most frustrating streaks in college football against No. 9 Florida last year, the Wildcats hope to turn that jubilation into back-to-back wins versus the Gators for the first time in a generation.
The Gators haven’t forgotten being upset 27-16 at home and vow to prove they’re a different team.
“It’s a motivational factor,” Florida junior defensive back Donovan Stiner said this week. “Of course, it’s in the back of everyone’s minds. But at the same time, everyone knows it has nothing to do with this game.”
Most important for both schools is opening Southeastern Conference play with a victory in Saturday night. For once the game will begin without “The Streak” as a subplot, thanks to Kentucky’s upset in The Swamp last September that ended a 31-game series slide.
The Wildcats’ next step is mounting their first series winning streak since 1976-77 with their first home series win since 1986.
“Hopefully, it’ll have a positive effect on our team,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “I think just winning in general is important. Changing that culture is hard, and it took a long time. But, again, our players know that it’s a challenge each and every week and it’s our preparation that’ll determine the outcome.”
One of Kentucky’s challenges will be playing without the quarterback who engineered last year’s upset that sparked a 10-3 finish.
Junior Terry Wilson, who accounted for all three touchdowns in the win, is out for the season after tearing his left patellar tendon in last week’s 38-17 win over Eastern Michigan . He had played well in the first two games and ran for a short touchdown before being hurt on a horse-collar tackle.
Junior transfer Sawyer Smith entered the contest and threw a 54-yard TD on his first attempt and a 2-yard TD to seal the victory. The former Troy starter now will run the offense against the nation’s best pass rush (15 sacks).
“They’re pretty good at the pass rush,” Smith said of the Gators, “but I’ve got five guys that are pretty good at pass protection and run blocking. I’m pretty confident in the guys in front of me.”
The Gators are coming off a 45-0 home shellacking of UT Martin, a big improvement from their 24-20, opening-game victory over Miami. The next step is their first true road game against a team starting over with a new signal caller.
Second-year Florida coach Dan Mullen doesn’t expect Smith to drastically change Kentucky’s offense but acknowledged, “it’ll have a different twist, so we have to adjust to that.”
Some other things to watch as Kentucky hosts No. 9 Florida:
SACKS FOR EVERYBODY
Florida’s fierce blitzing scheme posted five sacks against UT Martin and holds a three-sack lead on Maryland nationally. Lineman Jabari Zuniga (three sacks) leads four Gators with at least 1.5 sacks, while 10 others have at least half a sack. The Gators’ 26 tackles for loss also ranks second nationally.
Initially expected to be receiving targets, Kentucky’s running backs have instead rushed the ball well enough to rank 40th nationally with 207.5 yards per game. The Wildcats are coming off a 239-yard rushing effort against Eastern Michigan in which they averaged 6.1 per carry. “That just shows how much the passing game has opened up the running game,” said rushing leader Kavosiey Smoke (172 yards, two TDs). “It spreads the defense and gives us lanes to run through.”
The Gators enter the game possibly without a couple of key players themselves. Wide receiver Kadarius Toney is out with an injured left shoulder, while cornerback CJ Henderson is doubtful because of a sprained left ankle. Toney is third on the team with 72 yards on three receptions and among five receivers with a touchdown. Henderson has three tackles and two pass breakups.
Don’t be shocked if Kentucky junior receiver Lynn Bowden lines up behind center out of the Wildcat formation. The former high school QB set up the Wildcats’ first TD against EMU with a 32-yard pass to Wilson and finished with 54 yards receiving and a TD. He had a 54-yard TD catch at Florida last season.
Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks bounced back from two interceptions against Miami with a near-perfect effort against UTM by completing 25 of 27 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns. Through two games he’s 42 of 54 passing (78 and ranks sixth nationally in completion percentage. “He’s grown in a lot of ways,” Mullen said of his quarterback. “He’s done a good job of just managing, taking what the defense gives us and checking it down.”
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