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Thursday, January 20, 2022

Gators attempt to best Wildcats on the road

Florida heads to Lexington, Kentucky, for an SEC East battle

Florida's Malik Davis (20) celebrates an early touchdown against Tennessee on Sept. 25.
Florida's Malik Davis (20) celebrates an early touchdown against Tennessee on Sept. 25.

The last time the Florida Gators entered Kroger Field, the legend of Kyle Trask was born

The backup quarterback filled in during the second half and led a come-from-behind victory on Kentucky’s home turf.

Now, Trask is in the NFL, and Florida prepares for a war with the Wildcats with Emory Jones under center. Jones has looked like two different quarterbacks this season, struggling for his first 10 quarters but turning it around in his last six. Since he was booed by his own fans against Alabama, Jones has completed 32 of 41 passes for 328 and two touchdowns while rushing for 187 yards and a touchdown. 

“He’s got more to come,” running back Dameon Pierce said after the victory over Tennessee. “That’s just scratching the surface for Emory. That’s a guy with a lot of potential and a lot of grit.”

Jones will battle a solid Kentucky defense that has allowed 20 points and 260 yards per game. The secondary can be had, as the Wildcats have given up 172 yards per game through the air compared to just 87 yards per game on the ground. 

Florida’s rushing offense has been its calling card this year: The Gators are averaging 323 yards per contest rushing the ball, good for third in the FBS behind Army and Air Force. They have three players within the top 10 in the Southeastern Conference in rushing yards: Jones (fifth), quarterback Anthony Richardson (eighth) and running back Malik Davis (ninth).

Richardson supplied some explosive plays early in the season — three touchdowns longer than 70 yards in the first two weeks — but he’s missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. The Gators should get back an important chess piece to their offense Saturday, as head coach Dan Mullen said after the win against Tennessee that Richardson should be at 100% going into Lexington.

It’ll be a battle of strength on strength on the other side of the ball: Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez Jr has run for 513 yards in four games so far this season, the fifth most in the FBS. He averages over six yards per carry, but now comes up against a strong Florida run defense. UF is allowing 110 yards per game on the year, including just 91 yards against Alabama in Week 3.

“You have to go play them and beat them,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham told media this week. “I mean, they're not going to beat themselves, and it's going to be a physical game.”

Kentucky quarterback Will Levis has made some flash plays with his arm and legs this season, tallying 902 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions through the air while adding 67 yards and a touchdown on the ground. 

The former Penn State quarterback played with current Florida defensive tackle Antonio Valentino in Happy Valley. After seeing him up close, Valentino said Levis is strong-willed, physical and not easily shaken.

“If he's running the ball, and he has the choice of going around you or going through you, he's gonna try to go through you,” Valentino said.

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Florida’s pass rush will attempt to be aggressive and get after the quarterback. The Gators are second in the SEC with 15 sacks, while Levis has been sacked six times. 

Arguably the biggest storyline entering Saturday is how Florida will react to a true road environment. The Gators played three home games in the first month of the season, and their only road trip was to Tampa, Florida, against South Florida, where there was more orange and blue than green and gold in the crowd. This is the first opposing crowd Florida will play since 2019, and the first time Jones will face a hostile environment as the true starting quarterback.

“I'm very much looking forward to it, Valentino said. “I love going into hostile environments. I kind of feel like the bad guy walking into somewhere… It makes it way more fun because I know you hate me when it's like, we’re still here to win a game.”

The Gators look to keep their road to Atlanta intact from the battlefield of Kroger Field Saturday starting at 6 p.m. The game can be watched on ESPN.

Contact Michael Hull at mhull@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Hull33.

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Michael Hull

Michael Hull is a third-year journalism major with a specialization in sports & media. He has a minor in business and leadership and is a struggling Jacksonville Jaguars fan.


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