Florida Gators Key Matchups vs. the Kentucky Wildcats

Which personnel matchups could decide Florida vs. Kentucky?
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It’s hard to believe that Florida only has three games left in the regular season left to play. What began as a truncated, SEC-only schedule, could now culminate in the Gators' best season since 2009.

The remainder of the schedule is far from daunting on paper, as Florida finishes Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU. However, the team coming into the Swamp this Saturday afternoon has been a fly in the ointment for Dan Mullen through two seasons as head coach of Florida.

We all remember 2018 and Kentucky beating Florida for the first time since 1986. And who could forget 2019, the catalyst for the Kyle Trask era?

However, 2020 is very different and this version of Kentucky has far fewer teeth to it than the prior two renditions of Mark Stoops' squads. The Wildcats sit at 3-5 and are coming off a 63-3 drudging via the hands of Alabama.

Here are the matchups that will decide if the Gators move within one game of clinching the SEC East crown.

Florida front seven vs. Kentucky run game

As opposed to the majority of teams in the SEC, Kentucky is almost entirely dependent on the run game. They average just over 177 yards per game, good for 50th in the nation. However, the ground attack isn’t as explosive as it was a year ago when they averaged over 279 yards a game.

Kentucky could be without their top running back on Saturday in Chris Rodriquez. Rodriquez missed the Alabama game due to COVID-19 protocol, and was not listed on the team's depth chart on Monday ahead of this week's game. Rodriquez leads Kentucky with 562 rushing yards, six touchdowns, and averages 6.4 yards per carry.

This means the Gators will be dealing with A.J. Rose (359 yards, 5.5 yards per carry, one touchdown) and Kayvoisey Smoke (137 yards, 5.7 yards per carry, one touchdown). The duo combined to rush for 127 yards on Florida in 2019, one of their lowest season totals that year.

The biggest challenge for the Gators will be stopping either quarterback Terry Wilson or Joey Gatewood on the ground. Wilson is third on the Wildcats in rushing with 339 yards and four touchdowns. Wilson missed the 2019 game against Florida after suffering a season-ending injury the prior week, but he gashed the Gators in 2018, rushing for 105 yards and a touchdown.

“Probably got to stay in our gap more,” defensive lineman Gervon Dexter said. “Not try to get out of gaps, give no open gaps to [Wilson] because he can run it.”

Mobile quarterbacks notoriously give Todd Grantham-led defenses fits, and Wilson is the most mobile quarterback Florida will face this year. Will Grantham decide to play more zone coverage to keep Wilson in front of them, especially since Kentucky has one of the worst passing attacks in the nation? 

Kentucky averages only 114 passing yards a game, but it’s the scramble-to-dump off passes that should worry Florida. Kentucky moved the ball effectively against Alabama early in that game on third down when the pocket would collapse and Wilson would scramble and find his tight ends or backs when defenders came up on him.

This leaves the biggest question for Florida: who will be in charge of spying Wilson? Will it be Ventrell Miller? Or will someone like Ty’Ron Hopper be used on third downs, as he seems to be the most athletic linebacker to possibly be able to keep Wilson in check?

Florida has improved in their run defense over the season, allowing roughly 4.2 yards per rush, and stopping the traditional ground game Kentucky will employ shouldn’t be a massive concern, but it’s the scramble yards Florida needs to worry about.

Zach Carter and Kyree Campbell vs. Landon Young and Drake Jackson

This is going to be a slugfest in the trenches. Two of the best defensive lineman in the SEC going up against two of the best offensive lineman in the SEC. Carter and Campbell are the reigning back-to-back SEC defensive lineman of the week, while Young was named the week four SEC offensive lineman of the week.

The run game was touched on earlier, but boiling it down to these four players and getting even more specific could be the difference in Kentucky churning out runs of five or six yards, versus runs of three or four yards.

The Gators have recorded 46 tackles for loss this season, and Carter and Carter anchoring the defensive front is a big reason for that. They prevent lineman from getting to linebackers at the second level, and allowing them to make their run fits.

With how athletic Jackson and Young are, it’ll be that much more important for the interior duo to be stout at the point of attack. They can’t allow these big, quick lineman to get out in space and clear lanes for the solid backs Kentucky has.

If Carter and Campbell can continue their dominance in the trenches and stuff the Kentucky run game, it’ll be a much easier night for Florida overall. If not, we may be looking at a repeat of 2019.

Kyle Trask vs. Kentucky secondary

Kentucky’s secondary is the strength of their defense. They’ve recorded 12 interceptions this season (although six of them were in one game versus Mississippi State) and allow 222 passing yards a game (although, again, the only good quarterback they’ve played is Mac Jones and he didn’t even play three quarters last week).

But, nonetheless, Kentucky is best at stopping the pass. While they do allow opponents to complete 66% of their passes, they allow less than seven yards an attempt.

“The unique challenge that Kentucky presents is that they have a ton of length,” offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said. “They have the ability to be versatile and be multiple in what they present to offenses.”

Trask has been excellent this season at utilizing his check-downs, and that’s led to the likes of Malik Davis and Nay’Quan Wright being big parts of the passing game. With how Kentucky plays defense, they may be used a good bit on Saturday.

Kentucky, however, has a potential nightmare matchup problem on their hands. While they possess talented safeties in Yusuf Corker and Tyrell Ajian, they don’t have the personnel to match up with the length Florida has, especially with Kyle Pitts returning to the lineup. Imagine a personnel grouping that has Pitts, Kemore Gamble, Keon Zipperer, Trevon Grimes, and Kadarius Toney on the field at once. Good luck trying to find the right guy to cover all of them.

It will be interesting to see how Gamble and Zipperer are used now that Pitts is back, especially considering how productive they were in Pitts’ absence. Florida actually had two of its three most productive rushing games with Gamble and Zipperer blocking at tight end against Arkansas and Missouri, rushing for 208 and 173 yards, respectively.

“They're a big part of our offense,” Mullen said. “We use them to create mismatches. And, you know, I think a lot, Kyle Pitts got so much attention but we know those other guys are there. You know you can't sit there and say hey, 'Well, he went out, we have to scrap our entire offense because you know we don't have another tight end that can do that stuff.’ And so you know we have a lot of faith and confidence in those guys.”

On top of that, Trask will have plenty of time to get rid of the ball, as Kentucky is averaging only 1.25 sacks per game. With that kind of time, Trask will be able to pick apart the under matched Wildcat secondary.

Fast start for Florida

When Florida went to Vanderbilt, it was a bizarre trip. The Gators didn’t use the visiting locker rooms, they got to the field barely an hour before kickoff, it was their first time traveling on a plane since the Texas A&M game with stricter COVID-19 protocols, and it was an 11 am local time kickoff.

All of those factors led to a sluggish start for Florida on offense. Yes, Florida scored on their opening drive, but, after that, the offense sputtered in a way we hadn’t witnessed all season. The following three dives combined for 64 yards on 19 plays (3.36 yards per play), two punts and three points.

This should not happen again, given the much more suitable environment the Gators get playing at home. Mullen said after the game it was a “hum-ho” performance, and that the team didn’t have their sharpest week of practice, on top of the circumstances surrounding the pregame.

Fast starts are what Florida has been known for this season. The Gators were averaging nearly 28 points in the first half of games this year going into Vandy, and burying opponents early has been one of the biggest keys to success for Florida.

Doing this against Kentucky will be vastly important. If Kentucky falls behind, they’ll be forced to abandon the run game and considering how poor their passing attack is, it is safe to say that Florida has the game in the bag, so to speak.

If Florida allows Kentucky to hang around and establish a consistent rhythm on offense, it may be a closer game than what the -21.5 point spread indicates.