No. 22 Florida tackles road woes, series losing streak at Kentucky

There was a time when the Florida Gators could beat Kentucky with one hand tied behind their backs.

Florida wideout Ricky Pearsall may need only one hand to make a spectacular catch, but the No. 22 Gators will have their hands full against the unbeaten Wildcats in Southeastern Conference action Saturday in Lexington, Ky.

Kentucky (4-0, 1-0 SEC) returns home after opening the conference calendar with a 45-28 victory at Vanderbilt last Saturday.

The Wildcats have won the last two meetings with Florida and three of the last five in a rivalry that once saw the Gators sweep 31 straight meetings from 1987 to 2017. Kentucky won 26-16 last season in The Swamp and entered this week as a slight favorite at Kroger Field.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops insisted that the past “really doesn’t have any bearing” on Saturday’s game.

“There’s a term that we use a lot in our program and that is divine discontent,” he said. “We know there’s more out there. We know we can play better. And that ought to be our motivation. …

“We’re still hungry and nobody’s content with what we’re doing and we’re looking forward to a great opportunity here this week with the Florida team that we know is always extremely talented (and a) very good team.”

The Gators (3-1, 1-0) enter with three straight wins since a season-opening setback at then-No. 14 Utah. Florida defeated Charlotte 22-7 last Saturday but hasn’t played outside Gainesville since that Aug. 31 loss in Salt Lake City.

Florida held Charlotte to 10 first downs and 211 total yards, including 78 rushing yards on 29 attempts.

“Defensively we were lights out outside of one possession,” said head coach Billy Napier, whose Gators are giving up just 13.5 points per game.

Graham Mertz completed 20 of 23 passes for 259 yards and one touchdown against the 49ers. Pearsall posted six catches for 104 yards, including a fantastic one-handed grab in the first quarter — despite absorbing a huge hit from two defenders.

Mertz hasn’t thrown an interception since the opener and Pearsall leads the team in catches (26) and receiving yards (362). Trevor Etienne has rushed for 329 yards, including 172 in a Sept. 16 upset of then-No. 11 Tennessee.

Including the loss at Utah and a pair of neutral-site defeats in his first season on the job in 2022, Florida is just 1-6 outside of Gainesville under Napier.

“I think this is a big week,” Napier said. “Obviously Kentucky has a really good football team. We’ve got a ton of respect for Coach Stoops and the program that he’s built there, the consistency in which they play and the brand of football that they play — the fundamentals, the philosophy.

“It’s a tough place to go play.”

Devin Leary, a transfer from NC State, has thrown for 1,060 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions for the Wildcats. Ray Davis, a Vanderbilt transfer, leads Kentucky with 314 rushing yards and five TDs. While with the Commodores last season, Davis ran for 122 yards in a 31-24 upset of a 20th-ranked Gators squad.

–Field Level Media