The challenge of playing No. 14 Florida on the road this week should shake Kentucky out of its funk.
Of course, the Wildcats could be bracing for another disappointment.
Kentucky travels to Florida for its Southeastern Conference opener trying to end a 25-game losing streak to the Gators. Florida (3-0) has scored at least 41 points in the past five meetings, including a 63-5 trouncing in 2008.
Kentucky hasn’t won at Florida since 1979.
And if that isn’t enough to get the Wildcats’ attention, the Gators are averaging nearly 233 rushing yards per contest.
The challenges playing at Florida presents and hoping to open SEC play with a win has helped the Wildcats begin moving on from Saturday’s 32-31 overtime loss to Western Kentucky.
“Definitely, It’s a wakeup call,” junior linebacker Avery Williamson said. “Games that we should have won, we didn’t take advantage of those and now we’ve got to take advantage of this Florida game. We only got one win, and we gotta get at least five more to be bowl eligible, so we’ve really got to scratch and claw now.
“We’ve got a tough schedule coming up in SEC play, and we’ve really got to take advantage of these” games.
Saturday begins a seven-game run of SEC foes, including four at Commonwealth Stadium. The next three are the most important, all against top-25 teams.
After Florida comes No. 7 South Carolina and No. 23 Mississippi State, with fifth-ranked Georgia following two weeks later. Kentucky began the season hard pressed to win many SEC games, and it’s hard to imagine the Wildcats earning many victories from this stretch.
Coach Joker Phillips remains hopeful, noting that teams such as Florida should help motivate his young team and mature. Taking advantage depends on the Wildcats improving their tackling, one reason they’re allowing 188 rushing yards per game.
“We’ve got to tackle better,” Phillips said this week. “That has nothing to do with youth. We got to make sure we wrap him up and the next guy in is stripping (the ball). We haven’t been a good gang-tackling football team.”
Phillips said his team’s pass defense also has room to grow. That might not be an issue with Florida running the ball more than it throws, but opponents’ 72.5% completion rate against Kentucky is something he doesn’t want the Gators exploiting, either.
“We don’t have a lot of deflections (or) passes broken up,” he added. “That’s usually when you get a lot of interceptions, those types of things, when you’re having passes broken up. We don’t have a lot of them. We have to do a better job in that area also.”
That agenda began Sunday with overcoming the shock of losing to Western Kentucky in overtime on a trick-play two-point conversion. The Hilltoppers generally dominated, but the Wildcats took heart in rallying from a 17-0 deficit to force OT and finding resolve to even take the lead briefly.
Neither prevented Kentucky’s second loss this season to an instate school and first to WKU, 0-16 against the SEC coming in. How it ended left players more stunned than usual the day after.
“It kind of started wearing off a little bit” Sunday, Williamson said, adding that while students didn’t voice their displeasure directly to players, “we were hearing we weren’t very good.”
Meanwhile, postgame sports talk radio shows suggested that this season might be Phillips’ last as Wildcats coach, speculation he said he hasn’t had time to listen to.
“My job is to make sure we win football games (and) continue to do the things we need to do to win football games,” he said. “The first order of business is focusing on Florida.”
With that it became all about the Gators, whose series stronghold should have the Wildcats’ attention all week long.
“(The aftermath) really wasn’t too bad because the team knows and the coaches emphasized that we had to move on,” said junior tailback Jonathan George, who rushed for three touchdowns against WKU.
“It’s on to the next team and the next game. It’s not going to be an easy game, so our sole focus is on Florida.”