Cats ‘embrace’ challenge from Florida

Published 5:05 pm Wednesday, September 20, 2017

LEXINGTON (KT) — Mark Stoops doesn’t want to hear any talk on whether or not No. 20 Florida remains one of the elite teams in the Southeastern Conference.

“You’re crazy,” Stoops replied when asked by a reporter if the Gators were as scary as they have been in the past. “I’ve watched them play and they are the same Florida team. They are a very, very good football team. Don’t you put words in my mouth. But again, like always, it is really about us and our preparation and how we play. Our team heard that all last week. All we need to be is the best version of ourself. We need to worry about us and how good we can play.”

The Wildcats (3-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) turned in a solid performance, especially defensively, in a 23-13 win at South Carolina last weekend, giving Stoops his fourth straight victory over the Gamecocks. Although Kentucky has mastered what it takes to beat South Carolina, they’ve yet to break a long losing streak to Florida, which now spans three decades. The Wildcats haven’t defeated the Gators since a 10-3 triumph at Kroger Field in 1986.

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Stoops has lost in hist first four attempts at ending the winless streak, a string of setbacks that included a 36-30 triple overtime loss three years ago in Gainesville and a 45-7 blowout a year ago at The Swamp. Stoops said he understands the importance of ending the streak.

“I’ve accepted rivalries and you know all the negative streaks that you all are so good at telling me every week and all those things,” he said. “It’s true, I mean I take it personally, I do. I care about our fan base and I do care about the history even if I wasn’t here. I want to make our people happy and supportive of our team, and past players and all the tradition, the whole deal. So, it’s important. It’s part of what motivates you every day, to get up and do the best job you can.”

As Stoops knows, in order to make a dent in the Southeastern Conference East race, beating the Gators would provide leverage going into the heart of the league schedule. A win over the Gators would give the Wildcats four straight victories to open the season for the first time in nine years and a 2-0 start in the SEC for the first time since 1977.

“There are always these steps that we need to take to push forward and we don’t dodge those,” Stoops said. “We embrace those challenges and will do the very best we can.”

Florida is coming off a thrilling 26-20 triumph over Tennessee in its conference opener. A Hail Mary touchdown as time expired kept the Gators’ perfect 2-0 record intact. Florida won the SEC East last season, overcoming Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia to capture the division crown.

Although the win at South Carolina was a big achievement, Stoops said his team doesn’t have much time to celebrate.

“We are excited about that win and we’re excited to get back to work,” Stoops said. “It is very shortlived and we will have our hands full this week. We are excited to be back home and playing a great Florida team. So, we will be excited and ready to go.”

SEC honors: Kentucky defensive back Derrick Baity was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week and Austin MacGinnis claimed the special teams honor following their performances against South Carolina. It marked just the fourth time in school history two players were honored on the same week.

Baity recorded three takeaways and recorded an interception down the stretch.

“I thought (Baity) played a very good game and we are going to need him to play better,” Stoops said. “There are still some explosive plays that are happening in the passing game that we have got to get corrected. Some of that is going to happen when you are playing as good of run defense as we are, people are going to start throwing the ball. But overall, I really thought that our defense did some good things. We have a few big plays that we have got to get corrected.”

MacGinnis made three field goals and was consistent on his kickoffs.

“He’s just been resilient, he’s been consistent and again, if he’s made any mistake or anything, he’s bounced right back and delivered the next time,” Stoops said. “I have a lot of respect for Austin. He’s a tough guy and he’s been great under pressure.”

Special recognition: Kentucky will honor its newest Hall of Fame inductees Saturday at halftime. The 2017 class includes former football standout Randall Cobb, Collin Cowgill (baseball), Ralph Hacker (broadcaster), Sherry Hoover Bordner (cross country/indoor track/outdoor track), Sarah Rumely (volleyball) and John Wall (men’s basketball).