Defense is UK’s only chance to stay in game with Gators

By BRIAN RICKERD/sports@state-journal.com Published:

LEXINGTON – The most glaring part of Kentucky’s poor defense so far this college football season has been the Wildcats’ almost hopeless ability to stop the run.

Louisville, Kent State and Western Kentucky all have had extended periods of running the ball so easily against the Wildcats that you had to look hard to see UK defenders in the picture.

That makes Saturday’s UK-Florida game in Gainesville (12:21 kickoff on WKYT) almost painful to contemplate.

Florida is fifth in the Southeastern Conference in rushing and features the league’s top running back, Mike Gillislee, who has rushed for 115 yards per game.

Kentucky comes into play Saturday at 1-2, reeling off a 32-31 overtime loss to Western Kentucky. Florida is 3-0 and ranked 14th nationally, coming off an impressive 37-20 at Tennessee.

The Gators have owned Kentucky for the last quarter century, and boy, this one doesn’t promise to be any brighter.

“This is a really tough football team we’re about to play,” UK coach Joker Phillips said of Florida. “There’s four stats that stick out: Returning offense. They’ve rushed for 232 yards per game. Their rushing defense, giving up just a little over 100 yards a game. Their quarterback (Jeff Driskel) has thrown for 70 percent (completion rate) with no interceptions, and their tailback leads the league in rushing.”

Phillips also says the Gators have a large, experienced offensive line.

“We have to do a better job of stopping the run, so it should be a big challenge for us,” Phillips said.

UK defensive coordinator Rick Minter looks at the challenge Florida presents his defense on the ground this way.

“We need to hold our edges when it is time to hold our edges and take our proper gaps when it is time to,” said Minter, who’s been getting almost as much heat for Kentucky’s poor start as Phillips. “They (Florida) have a lot of different kinds of ways to run the ball, which is challenging.

“They run right up the middle with the power running game, much like Western Kentucky did. That is a sign of a physical team when they try to do those things. They also run a lot of jet sweep plays where they are coming from the outside with their wide receivers and hybrid athletes.

“They have a lot of ways to attack you in the rushing game and they are getting a lot of production, even with a ‘Wildcat’ quarterback who took one for 80 last week against a solid defensive team. They are very diverse, much more so than I rethings. They also run a lot of jet sweep plays where they are coming from the outside with their wide receivers and hybrid athletes.

“They have a lot of ways to attack you in the rushing game and they are getting a lot of production, even with a ‘Wildcat’ quarterback who took one for 80 last week against a solid defensive team. They are very diverse, much more so than I remember in the past.

“So the challenges are great, but we have to get out there and see what we can do.”

Phillips said his defenders simply need to “tackle better.”

“And that has nothing to do with youth,” Phillips said. “We’ve got to make sure we wrap them up.”

Asked if stopping the run is going to be a year-long battle for Kentucky, Phillips replied: “A year-long battle? I think it’s a lifetime battle.”

The other factor at work this week for Kentucky is that the Wildcats must see a significant step up for sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith.

Smith was superb through the first two games, but took a step back in the loss to WKU, throwing four interceptions.

Do that against Florida and suddenly a 49-14 kind of loss could be 63-14 in a hurry.

Phillips said Smith moved around too much in the pocket at times against the Hilltoppers.

“There wasn’t a lot of pressure,” Phillips said of Western’s pass rush that netted six sacks a week earlier at Alabama but only one against UK. “Our guys (offensive linemen) did a really good job.

“The thing Max has to do is make sure he understands where he’s supposed to be. Then, when he moves out of the pocket, he’s got to reset his feet and throw strikes, which is what he does when he lines up the right way.”

Bottom line, though the odds of a Kentucky win Saturday are about as great as that of Tulane winning the national championship, there IS much to be gained for the Wildcats at Florida.

Asked how much a Kentucky victory against the Gators would heal all the wounds in the program right now, Phillips said, “I don’t know if it would turn everything around just like that, but it would definitely help with momentum.

“We’re getting ready to go into a tough SEC grind, so it would definitely help in gaining momentum. (But) I don’t think there’s anything that’s a quick fix.”

The Wildcats return home Sept. 29 to host South Carolina. That game will kick off at 7 p.m. on either ESPN or ESPN2.

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