LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s euphoria after a big victory and lofty ranking has given way to trying to improve multiple phases.
The No. 9 Wildcats (2-0) hope a two-week stretch of non-conference games help their development, though Saturday’s inaugural meeting against Youngstown State poses an interesting challenge. They’ll face one of the most successful Football Championship Subdivision schools in the Penguins (2-0), who will be motivated to win their first contest against a Southeastern Conference program.
Especially a Kentucky team guided by Youngstown, Ohio, native Mark Stoops.
“I know how tough they are, what type of program (they are) and the history they have,” Stoops said this week. “They’re not going to be intimidated, that’s all good and there’s a connection there.
“But at the end of the day, they’re coming in to beat us and play well. It’s our job to keep that intensity, to keep that focus and keep on improving.”
Kentucky's second-half rally to beat then-No. 11 Florida 26-16 last week in The Swamp certainly provided a boost. The Wildcats shook off first-half mistakes to shut out the Gators 13-0 in the second half and earn consecutive series wins for the first time in 45 years.
The hard-fought victory lifted the Wildcats nine spots to their highest Associated Press Top 25 ranking since reaching No. 8 in October 2007. Stoops said his phone blew up with 300 congratulatory messages he’s still trying to answer.
With the recognition comes a bigger target for foes. Kentucky faced a similar task last fall, having to fight off FCS Chattanooga after beating Missouri in SEC play. But one week after Sun Belt Conference teams beat ranked Notre Dame and Texas A&M and unranked Nebraska, the Wildcats aim to avoid a similar fate.
“Coach Stoops talks about, week in and week out, how those games happen,” Kentucky quarterback Will Levis said. “And you’ve got to do everything you can to avoid those situations.”
Youngstown State drubbed Dayton 49-16 last week behind a school-record six touchdown passes. Sophomore Demeatric Crenshaw threw five TDs before Mitch Davidson tossed another for the mark.
The four-time national champions are ranked 23rd in the FCS coaches poll and have outscored opponents 80-30. As good as it’s been so far, the Penguins must raise their game to topple a Power Five school buoyed by a big win.
“Don’t overhype yourself," YSU linebacker Griffin Hoak said. "If you get too amped up, you might mess up some little things, you know?
“Just expect to do your job. And if you do your job, we play a good football game, we’ll have fun and might get a dub (W).”
Kentucky has yielded seven sacks, including three at Florida, and hasn't broken 100 net yards rushing in either contest. Growing pains were expected with a retooled offensive line that includes five underclassmen, but took a step further toward jelling with improved second-half play in Gainesville.
“It gave us some access to have some success in the run game,” added Stoops, whose team out-rushed the Gators 107-32 after halftime. “You put those things together, and we will continue to build on that.”
Youngstown State senior tailback Jaleel McLaughlin enters the game as the active career NCAA leader with 6,910 yards rushing and 69 touchdowns on 1,065 attempts. He rushed for 2,400 yards each of his first two seasons at Division II Notre Dame College before adding 2,162 yards and 21 TDs with the Penguins. He has run for 332 yards and four TDs through two games.
Keidron Smith has twice come up with timely turnovers to swing momentum for Kentucky. The Ole Miss transfer returned an interception 65 yards for the go-ahead touchdown at Florida, one week after his 21-yard fumble return set up an insurance TD during a game-changing, 62-second stretch against Miami (Ohio). Jordan Wright returned from suspension to pick off another pass against the Gators, giving the Wildcats 21 points off takeaways and a plus-1 turnover margin.
TIES THAT BIND
Youngstown State figures to have a loud presence that might also cheer for some native sons on Kentucky’s sideline. Besides Stoops and his brother Mike, the inside linebackers coach, others hailing from the blue-collar town include junior linebacker Luke Fulton and freshman running back Sean O’Horo; safeties coach Frank Buffano; graduate assistant Courtney Love; and tight ends coach/recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow, who has been critical in luring talent from northeast Ohio.
More AP college football:
https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25. Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://apnews.com/cfbtop25