By Dick Gabriel
Big Blue Sports Network
So, who are these guys, anyway? I mean, REALLY – who are they?
We’re going to find out together, Saturday evening.
Whether you’re sitting in your recliner at home, chowing down on wings at your favorite establishment, or watching in sweaty Gainesville, it’s a pretty good bet we’ll know more about the football Wildcats by the end of the night than we do right now.
We’re going to find out just how much Mike Hartline has improved… just how well Derrick Locke can run in The Swamp (he was injured and didn’t make the trip the last time Kentucky visited)… just how many things Randall Cobb can do against a Big Boy college football team… and, for that matter, what the UK defense can do against a team with a quarterback who won’t miss wide open receivers running free behind the Wildcat defense.
No one is suggesting that Kentucky’s non-conference schedule is close to SEC-caliber but then, what team’s is? You already know the reasons BCS teams load up on cannon fodder before league play begins (not that Louisville figures to remain that way under Charlie Strong). The best reason is that Southeastern Conference play is tough enough, thank you, and for most of the last several years, UK has had to begin with Florida.
It makes you long for the Fran Curci era. Back then, the Gators would come to town in November, when the sun would begin to set early in the afternoon. On a couple of occasions, Curci flip-flopped the field, forcing the visitors from the sunny south to stand on the side of the field rendered frigid by the long shadows, which didn’t affect his team until later in the game. You could hear the Florida players cursing as they tried to keep warm.
Now, the Gators visit Lexington before the hot, humid weather disappears, or at home, where it’s even hotter and more humid.
The losing skid has reached 23 games. There have been blowouts (73-7, in 1994), track meets (59-31 in 2000) and achingly close losses (the most painful, no doubt, in 1993 when Kentucky intercepted seven passes but scored just 20 points, losing on a last-second TD pass).
Kentucky’s best team in recent memory, the 2007 squad, traded haymakers with Florida in a 45-37 setback at Commonwealth Stadium. The Wildcats had spent the previous Saturday upsetting the top-ranked LSU Tigers, who would go on to win the national championship. The Gators had taken the Saturday off, using the open date to study up on explosive UK offensive attack (note – UF had to play last Saturday, beating Tennessee in Knoxville).
Two years ago, Kentucky visited a Florida team that again was coming off an open date. But that’s not why the Cats had no chance.
They robbed themselves of any shot at an upset victory, ruining what might have been a perfectly good game plan (we’ll never know) by failing to block in punt formation. The Gators crashed through the UK line twice in the first six minutes, blocking kicks and setting up short touchdown runs and a quick 14-0 lead. In fact, Florida scored the game’s first 35 points in a 63-5 win, en route to a national title.
Joker Phillips was talking about the slow start in the win over Akron with an eye on this Saturday’s game when he said, “You cannot, cannot come out and be not focused, not be intense, not be able to match their speed for the first quarter. If you do that, you could be down 14 points in a heartbeat or be down 21 points, and we've been there, been down 28 in the first quarter. If you don't match the intensity, don't match the excitement, if you allow the things that The Swamp brings to intimidate you, you could be down 28 points, no question about that.”
A UK team led by Woodson, Keenan Burton and Wesley Woodyard couldn’t win in Gainesville in 2006 although, to be fair, they did face the eventual national champion (26-7 loss). This year’s Wildcat squad has veterans on offense but a defensive unit that features a majority of starters who either haven’t made the trip to the Swamp or didn’t play much if they did.
“We've got to really stay focused on what we have to do, how we have to be, how we have to show up in order to be able to match the things that we'll have to match to play well down there in The Swamp,” Phillips said.
The UK coach knows what it feels like to beat Tennessee. He played on the last Kentucky team to knock off the Volunteers, in 1984. In fact, UK beat UT in Phillips’ freshman season as well. But during his playing career, the Wildcats lost four straight to the Gators. And during his two tours of duty as a UK assistant, the Cats have come up empty.
He won’t talk about the streak. But he’ll talk about the opportunity.
“This is what you come to Kentucky for,” Phillips said. “You come to play in big games. We sign up because we want to play in SEC games, and we have won on the road in the last three road trips. I don't know who has the longest winning streak on the road in the SEC, but we've been on the road and have been focused and well-prepared and did it for 60 minutes.
“This is a huge challenge for us, but that's what we signed up for. That's why we signed up to play at Kentucky, to play in these type of games.”
So far, every player who has signed up to play for the Wildcats since 1986 has been disappointed by the outcome. Snapping that streak would make for one happy plane ride home from The Swamp.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 22-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m.ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)