LEXINGTON Ky. — The last time Kentucky opened a season 0-2 was 1996.
The Wildcats will try to avoid the same disastrous start at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in The Swamp, a week after surrendering a 25-point lead to Southern Miss in a 44-35 opening-night loss.
No. 25 Florida began its season with a 24-7 win against Massachusetts behind first-year starting quarterback Luke Del Rio.
Here are five keys for Kentucky on Saturday:
React to the run
Quelling the ground game usually is the first task of a defense, but it’ll be especially important against the Gators.
Del Rio was solid (29 of 44, 256 yards) in Florida’s win against UMass, and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot’s side has to force him to try to do the same Saturday. The strength of Kentucky’s defense lies in the secondary, but for that to be a factor, the Wildcats have to make the Gators pass the ball.
Southern Miss rushed for 296 yards against Kentucky and had a pair of backs reach 100 yards. It’ll be a long day for UK in Gainesville, Fla. if the Gators have similar success on the ground.
Play both halves
Going back to the season finale against Louisville last year, Kentucky has led 24-7 and 35-17 at halftime in its last two games. Both resulted in losses for the Wildcats.
Kentucky has played the Gators close the past two years, losing by a combined 11 points. Florida still is breaking in a new quarterback and Kentucky’s offense proved its capabilities in the first half against Southern Miss.
Kentucky will face adversity in the Swamp, and the team’s response will be telling.
“Our players also know it’s about us and what we do, and if we go execute and play the very best we can then we’ll have an opportunity, a great opportunity,” Stoops said. “And if we don’t, we’ll have no chance.”
Keep the defense off the field
It’s a key Kentucky couldn’t accomplish last Saturday, but it’ll be a must in the Florida heat and humidity.
Southern Miss more than doubled UK’s time of possession in the second half, leaving the Kentucky defense on the field for long stretches of time.
The Kentucky rushing attack needs to be better. Sophomore QB Drew Barker and company must limit turnovers to sustain long drives. UK coughed up the ball in three of its five second-half possessions against Southern Miss.
Getting Barker’s best
By his own admission, Barker played his best collegiate half in the first half against Southern Miss on Saturday
But Barker’s 277 passing yards and 4 touchdowns were weighed down in the final two quarters by horrendous numbers — 36 passing yards, an interception and no touchdowns.
Good Barker could give the Wildcats a shot at the upset, but bad Barker will all but ensure another loss to Florida.
Stop the streak
Florida’s 29 consecutive wins against Kentucky is the longest active streak in the FBS. The Cats haven’t beaten the Gators since 1986 and haven’t won in Gainesville since 1979.
Coaches aren’t often keen on looking at past matchups, and Mark Stoops shared that mentality at his press conference Monday.
“I think it would do a lot because it’s a big game,” Stoops said. “It’s a conference game, it’s a divisional game and it’s on the road. I think it would mean a great deal for us to respond, to bounce back and go get a victory.”
Follow Joe on Twitter @joe_mussatto. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org