UK defense showed improvement but still has long way to go, short time to get there
It all started with Western Kentucky. And now, here come the Hilltoppers again.
Last year, watching the Wildcats play offense was like watching a relay race in a bog. No matter who was carrying the baton, no matter how high he tried to lift his knees, the mud got the best of him. It was dreadful. WKU was the first to expose the Kentucky “O.” It never got much better.
Now the ‘Toppers return to Lexington, where they lost 63-28 in 2010. But time they feature the nation’s 12th-best defense, despite a 35-0 shellacking to the number one team in the land, Alabama.
Last Saturday, WKU “held” the Crimson Tide to 328 yards; factor in the pounding it delivered to Austin Peay the week before (surrendering only 154 total yards) and you’ll see why the Hilltoppers, after two weeks, rank among the nation’s top defenses.
The UK offense seems to have things figured out, though. Now, it’s the defense – the same unit that won the WKU game last season for the Wildcats – that is painful to watch. The Kentucky D last year gave up just 234 total yards to the ‘Toppers; Kent State amassed 200 yards in the first half against the Cats, 409 for the game.
Kentucky has surrendered a total of 875 yards in its first two contests. Meanwhile, the offense looks like a track team. Joker Phillips is finding out firsthand what it was like to be Rich Brooks for most of the latter’s tenure as head coach at UK: One year, your offense can move the ball on anybody but your defense spends most of the game chasing after people. And during a season when you play credible D, you can’t move push the ball through rice paper.
With four new starters on the second level of its 3-4 defense, UK is scrambling for answers, looking for the right combination of plays and players. Raw freshmen are getting opportunities to show they can contribute and try to stanch the bleeding. Veteran Ronnie Sneed is one of the linebackers who moved on after last season; Avery Williamson has taken his spot and is struggling with the signal-calling element of the job.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the football, Maxwell Smith, who survived the pounding he took as the starting quarterback down the stretch last season, has looked like the veteran he is, pulling the trigger on the Wildcats’ new high-octane offense.
As the coaches look for the right mix of athlete and approach on defense, they’ve been forced to simplify their attack, meaning, fewer blitzes in an attempt to make sure everybody is in the right place. That’s only allowed the Louisville and Kent State quarterbacks to find a rhythm and a comfort level that resulted in fat offensive numbers.
On offense, the Cats are playing with the confidence that comes with knowing where you’re supposed to be and how you’re going to get there. Even when they make mistakes on offense, they make them at full speed. Think about the battle at the line of scrimmage between the receiver and the defensive back: The wideout knows where he’s going. The corner just tries to keep up – and half the time, he’s running backwards.
In the trenches, it’s a different story. When they’re pass-blocking, offensive linemen are moving backward, trying to fend off the defensive behemoths who are bent on crushing the quarterback. But within the new attack, Smith gets rid of the ball so quickly, the Wildcats have minimized sacks, something that plagued them all of last year.
The UK defense has racked up three sacks in each game so far this season, but it has been dreadful on third down. The Golden Flashes converted nine times in 18 attempts Saturday night, by land and by air.
“A hundred and eighty-plus yards (rushing) or whatever it turned out to be is not nearly good enough, not nearly satisfactory enough,” said defensive coordinator Rick Minter. “But based on where we were, where we’ve come in four short days, (I’m) not disappointed at all in our kids and how hard they played. We’ll fix the spots and keep developing our depth as we go.”
Prior to the game, Phillips said he was confident in the front line of Collins Ukwu, Donte’ Rumph and Mister Cobble and, to be sure, there were moments when they looked like a Southeastern Conference front.
In fact, late in the third quarter, after Kentucky had taken a 33-14 lead on a 38-yard touchdown run by Jonathan, Kent State took aim at the Wildcats’ end zone from its own 19-yard line, needing a score to regain momentum and stay in the game.
On first down, massive tailback Trayion Durham got the call and hit the hole – and ran straight into the arms of Cobble, who flattened him.
Second down, more of the same only this time, it was Julian Durden who got the football, and paid the price – Rumph was waiting for him, wrapped him up and drove him into the turf.
And on third down, quarterback Keith Spencer dropped back to throw, only to sacked by linebacker Alvin “Bud” Dupree, who showed flashes of brilliance in a substitute’s role last year. On this play he and his teammates, played defense the way they were supposed to play it.
New guys, as promised, did get some clock on defense. Dakota Tyler, JUCO transfer Kory Brown, Fred Tiller, Pancho Thomas, Khalid Henderson, Daron Blaylock – all saw playing time and likely will see more this week. And it will be there last opportunity to learn against a team that is NOT part of the SEC.
The conference opener happens on Sept. 22, when the Wildcats visit Gainesville, Florida. And that’s when the real learning begins.