Confidence is high in the Kentucky football locker room following a dominant performance in a win against Florida, but the Wildcats have their sights set on larger goals.
“We play next week, and you will have to put it all together,” UK coach Mark Stoops said after the win. “We were close at times today, and it could show you how good of a football team we can be when we do put it together. And I think there is a lot more out there for us. And we are going to keep on working and keep on pushing.”
Kentucky is 5-0 for the third time since 2018 but just the fifth time in the last 72 years. For the second time in three seasons, the Wildcats will travel to Athens, Georgia, to face the No. 1 Bulldogs while undefeated.
Georgia has looked vulnerable in closer-than-expected SEC wins over South Carolina and Auburn already, but Kentucky will need to take another step to snap a 13-game losing streak to Georgia.
Who’s rising and who’s falling for UK after the Florida win? The weekly stock watch takes a closer look.
RISING: Offensive line
Running back Ray Davis deserves much of the credit for his historic performance against Florida, but the Vanderbilt transfer was quick to make sure he was not the only one applauded for his 280 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
“Our O-line has been receiving a lot of criticism. I think today they showed up and they stepped up,” Davis said. “They’re making strides. Obviously no one is perfect in this world. We’re evolving and we’re getting better each and every game. Those guys are getting better. As an offense, we’re getting better.”
Earlier this week Stoops made it clear Kentucky needed improvement from the interior linemen from their performance at Vanderbilt. The move of Eli Cox back to center appears to have stabilized the operation on the line, but with Kenneth Horsey still out with a leg injury there was pressure on guards Dylan Ray and Jager Burton to step up.
The offensive line answered by posting its best performance in two years. Quarterback Devin Leary was barely touched on the afternoon, and while Davis turned several nice runs into big plays by making defenders miss, there were large holes for him to run through for most of the game.
“I think it’s a great first step to being back, absolutely,” Cox said. “It’s a statement by not only our offensive line, but our tight ends, our receivers, and then Ray running the ball. It takes all of us. Our tight ends did a great job communicating, our tackles and working together with them in practice. Ray Davis, Demie Sumo-Karngbaye, JuTahn McClain, Ramon Jefferson, all those guys hitting the right holes at the right time. Great play calling, great execution all around. It was an awesome performance by the offense.”
RISING: Pass rush
One year after ranking 104th nationally in sacks, Kentucky ranks 25th through five games. With 14 sacks on the year, the Wildcats are already more than halfway to the 2022 total for the entire season (20).
Against Florida, Kentucky totaled three sacks and nine tackles for loss. Ten Wildcats were credited with at least one-half tackle for loss.
“I thought he played an unbelievable game,” defensive coordinator Brad White said of Weaver. “He just played hard. He practiced great this week, and you could just tell in the way he was practicing that he was going to have a big game. He went out and he wasn’t forcing (things). There were some things that were close in the first half. Then he finally gets the sack.”
FALLING: Passing game
It is difficult to put too much stock in Kentucky totaling just 69 passing yards against Florida given how dominant the run game was, but the fact that Leary has had his two worst performances in the last two weeks does not add confidence for the Georgia matchup.
While it would have been irresponsible to abandon the run against Florida, Leary and company need to do better than nine completions in 20 attempts.
“I thought he missed some things early, and we didn’t help him again,” Stoops said. “We had a couple of catches we should have made and that might help his confidence, too. He definitely, late in the game, missed one. … I think it was a poor throw, and I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if it was deflected. I don’t know his vision. But we can’t have that because we had guys open.”
Sophomore wide receivers Barion Brown and Dane Key continued to drop passes. Brown dropped a wide-open touchdown. Key was held without a catch for the second time in three games.
Depth concerns at wide receiver are growing, too, as both Brown and Tayvion Robinson had to leave the game early due to injury. Stoops had no update on their status after the game, but either player missing time this week would be a major concern considering Key would then have to be the top option despite his recent struggles and freshman Anthony Brown-Stephens is the only other wide receiver on the roster to record a catch in the first five games.
Even if Brown and Robinson are healthy, improvement is clearly needed from Leary and the receivers if Kentucky is to have a shot at upsetting Georgia.
“They wouldn’t keep playing if we didn’t believe in them,” offensive coordinator Liam Coen said. “At the end of the day, we believe in everybody in that room. Today, it just happened to be one of those games that we ended up believing in the run game a little bit more than the pass game.”
▪ The Southeastern Conference announced Kentucky’s football game against Missouri will kick off at Kroger Field either at 7 p.m. on ESPN or 7:30 p.m. on the SEC Network.
No. 20 Kentucky at No. 1 Georgia
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 5-0 (2-0 SEC), Georgia 4-0 (1-0)
Series: Georgia leads 62-12-2
Last meeting: Georgia won 16-6 on Nov. 19, 2022, in Lexington