Thirty and Out

Denzil Ware celebrates with fans after UK’s 23 to 13 victory over South Carolina.

By Steve Kaufman

Photo by Victoria Graff

For the 31st time in 31 years, Kentucky carries high hopes that maybe THIS YEAR is the one that will snap the dreaded Florida losing streak.

Sometimes, those hopes have had all the structural strength of a soap bubble. Way too-well-remembered are the years when Steve Spurrier and then Urban Meyer prowled the other sideline, winning by scores like 73-7 and 65-0.

And sometimes the Wildcats have been close. But even when it’s close, it doesn’t seem to matter. Something – like a referee’s inexplicable failure to look at the play clock (Will I ever get over that? No!) – always flips the field on Kentucky.

But maybe not anymore. The beauty of the South Carolina win (Kentucky has a little winning streak of its own going on with the Gamecocks) was the athleticism, when it counted, of the kids in blue and white. The way they swarmed the ball on those third and fourth-and-shorts, the way they stuffed South Carolina’s running game all evening, the way their offensive line was able to push South Carolina’s defensive line backwards when the Cats were trying to control the clock.

Yes, the Carolina kickers missed field goals and extra points or, the speculation is, the outcome might have been different. Yes, Jake Bentley seemed to be playing catch in the back yard for much of the second half. Where was the pass rush? The pass defense?

And yes, the great Deebo Samuel burned the Cats on the first play of the game, which seemed to be all the local papers were talking about on Sunday morning. That and an interception and a lost fumble on the next two possessions, and it was oh-oh time.

But that all happened in about a three-minute stretch. The fact is, those things happen all the time over 60 minutes of almost every football game. The Cats didn’t let it bother them because that’s football. This Kentucky team brings a different agenda to the office. Bennie Snell rushes forward, only forward. Stephen Johnson is preternaturally poised and very fast.

And the defense! Jordan Jones couldn’t play. It didn’t seem to matter. Eli Brown made plays. Then he went out and Jamar Watson came in and he made plays. And Courtney Love, Derrick Baity, Denzil Ware, Mike Edwards – all over the field.

The defensive line might soon be able to shake off the “much maligned” prefix to its name. And, unlike the Carolina kickers, Austin MacGinnis repeatedly stepped up when called on and did what he was supposed to do.

You may not like the reliance on the Wildcat formation. You may not like Kentucky’s offense conservatively sitting on the ball in the fourth quarter. You may not like the refusal to put Johnson under center when snapping the ball remains a problem.

But Kentucky marches on, undefeated. Its supposedly easy schedule doesn’t look so cupcake all of a sudden. Mississippi State pounded LSU. Vanderbilt is undefeated. But first, there’s this to be done. The Florida Gators come onto Kroger Field.

Sometimes I wonder if we make too much of “motivation.” Mark Stoops said his team was fired up last week because it was the underdog – the old “no respect, us against everyone else” mantra – though being five-point underdogs on the road is akin to being even money. The oddsmakers almost always make the home team give six points.

However, it’s also true that almost none of the experts picked the Cats to win.

Frankly, I think motivation might be worth about a quarter of the game. Then football takes over. Still, if motivation is truly a factor, this has got to be the most motivated Kentucky team since . . . the last Florida game. VT