Kentucky’s pass defense was expected to be one of the team’s strengths entering the 2017 season. After nine games, it’s arguably their greatest weakness. What’s gone wrong? As Mark Stoops’ statement shows, there’s no simple answer.
“There were certainly things that everybody could’ve done better, starting with myself,” Stoops said on this week’s SEC teleconference. “Schematically in coverages that we played and also in technique with the players as well, so I think we all share in that responsibility.”
One look at the numbers and you’ll find that big plays are crippling the Cats.
Kentucky’s defense surrenders 279.4 passing yards per game, ranked 121 out of 130 FBS teams. A significant portion of that comes off big plays. UK has given up 13 plays of 40+ yards, tied for 124th in the FBS. Both of those numbers are at the bottom of the SEC.
Against Ole Miss, four plays accounted for half of the Rebels’ touchdowns and a third of their passing yards. That wasn’t just a flash in the pan: the Cats gave up yards in big chunks against Missouri and Eastern Michigan, just to name a few.
“You can’t give up big plays and expect to win,” Mark Stoops said Monday. “There’s always a few plays that determine a game. You don’t ever know which ones they are. Every play is important.”
Why are there so many homeruns? As much as Kentucky returns in the secondary, the departure of Marcus McWilson, JD Harmon and Blake McClain forced the defense to make impactful changes at safety. Mike Edwards has played more nickel, switching roles back-and-forth with Kendall Randolph, and Darius West is starting for the first time at free safety.
Along with inexperience, tempo has made the secondary vulnerable.
“With tempo teams, you’ve gotta get settled, get the call. It’s hard to do because we try to get our call after we see the formation,” Derrick Baity said. “That’s just stuff we can correct as a defense.”
It’s a lot easier to cover receivers when the quarterback is making throws under duress. Kentucky has 22 sacks, ranked in the middle of the SEC at No. 6, but Josh Allen accounts for a third of them. The Cats are also at the bottom of the SEC in tackles for loss.
What does that mean? To apply pressure on the quarterback, Kentucky has to blitz and make exotic defensive calls. Often times this leaves the secondary vulnerable in man-to-man coverage.
Opponents have found that the best way to take Kentucky’s pass rushers out of the game is by spreading out the defense. If there are three wide receivers to Allen’s side, he has to drop back into coverage or there will be gaps in the zone. The same can be said about Kentucky’s best blitzer, Jordan Jones. If you let him attack the quarterback it’s a high risk/reward situation.
This isn’t the final answer, just another part of the equation. Against Tennessee, eight players contributed on seven sacks, but the Vols still threw for 242 yards, their second-best passing day of the 2017 season.
Following the Mississippi State loss, Stoops lamented the lack of competitive plays made in the secondary. By “lack of,” I mean they didn’t win one single 50/50 ball.
When there is an opportunity to make a play, the secondary has failed to take advantage of those opportunities since the Bye Week. Sometimes, like on the final play of the Ole Miss game, the defense can be in perfect position, yet the receiver still makes an outstanding play. Other times, like the play before when Jordan Griffin batted down the pass in the end zone, the defender is just a few inches from intercepting the pass.
“We’ve had some opportunities for takeaways; we’re not physically taking the ball away. We’ve gotta make those interceptions and strip the opponent,” defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale said this week. “When we get those opportunities we gotta finish.”
After picking off six passes (three from Edwards) in the first five weeks of the season, the Cats have entered an interception drought that’s lasted longer than a month. The defense has not forced a turnover since before the Bye Week.
Giving up big plays while failing to create any momentum-changing turnovers is a recipe for disaster.
A unit that needs to walk with extra swagger in their step, have they lose any of it through this ugly stretch?
“I don’t think so,” defensive coordinator Matt House said Wednesday. “I think it’s a deal where we gotta keep pounding, keep working. There’s times where we’ve made some really big plays back there. It’s just something we gotta consistently do.”
Baity and Lonnie Johnson agree with their coach, even though their responses and body language did not emote the kind of confidence I routinely saw in the preseason.
“I forgot about it when coach told me to let it go,” Johnson said. “We’re not going to bring each other down. Everybody just got around me and tried to bring me up. I’m done with last week, I’m focused on this week.”
As difficult as it may be to put the difficult past in the rearview mirror, House said it’s part of the job.
“That’s part of the deal, right? A lot of time the team that makes the most competitive plays wins. You gotta have a short memory out there. Playing corner is not easy. He (Lonnie) was in good position, he used fundamentals, the guy just went up and made a great play. Ya gotta keep working.”
In an attempt to prevent the secondary from losing their confidence, Clinkscale has kept things positive this week in his meeting room and on the practice field.
“I’ve been really positive this week and the players have been really positive this week. It’s just, sometimes you have to use your skills to get on them in different ways. After tough loss like that you never just want to beat it into the ground. You still show them and make them accountable…Confidence hasn’t been an issue but we’ll continue to build on it.”
Consistency is elusive in college football. You can’t ask UK’s pass defense to be perfect on every play. However, you can ask them to remain focused and finish.
Big plays that have crippled the Kentucky defense. Focus through fatigue eliminates missed assignments and communication errors, the catalyst for big plays. When the secondary is in proper position, they must finish, the theme of this week’s practice.
“We gotta finish strong, we gotta play strong, we gotta be alert and aware at the end of the game and put the game on our shoulders,” Clinkscale said. “We gotta step up and win.”
To do that, Kentucky’s defense can’t let last week’s loss linger.
“We’ve been in close games like that where we’re a play away,” Baity said. “We can’t let it hinder the rest of the season; don’t let one [loss] turn into two and two turn into three.”