In a crucial, must-win scenario Kentucky will travel to Nashville in hopes of ending an ugly four-game losing skid. No easy way around it, if the Cats intend to play in the postseason, it has to win on Saturday. Style points are irrelevant. All indicators point to an ugly outing.
Vanderbilt is defensive. The Commodores sport the 12th best scoring defense in the nation by only giving up 17 points per game. Amongst SEC defenses; Vandy is fifth in total defense and second against the rush by only allowing 112 yards per game. The news gets better or worse, depending upon your viewpoint. Vanderbilt’s 25% third down conversion ratio ranks fourth in college football. This defense is salty, fundamentally sound, and aggressive.
In 2014, Vanderbilt gave up 33 points per game. Head coach Derrick Mason then fired his defensive coordinator and commandeered the Commodore defense. Since he assumed defensive play-calling duties, Vanderbilt has only given up 17 points per game. Quite the point swing. Virtually the same players, different attitude and result.
While only surrendering just 17 points per game, the 3-6 Dores manage to only score 14 points per contest. Good, or bad enough for 127th in the country.
Here’s how UK and VU position groups stack up:
Let’s be honest, Patrick Towles has struggled. In the latter portion of both 2014 and 2015, indecisiveness has overridden confidence. For the first time of the season, Kentucky’s starting quarterback position is undecided. Redshirt freshman Drew Barker is expected to see action on Saturday. To what extent? We’ll see. Regardless of who is taking snaps, Shannon Dawson will have a quick hook. The Cats cannot afford to waste an offensive series.
Vanderbilt QB Johnny McCrary has completed 54% of his passes for 1,529 yards. He’s also thrown 12 interceptions to go along with six touchdown passes. Freshman Kyle Shurmer is more of a pocket passer and has recently been cleared from injury. Shurmer has completed 41% of his throws for zero touchdowns and 109 yards. Most likely, both quarterbacks with play.
Towles-Barker or McCrary-Shurmer, given the lack of positional success for both teams, it’s not practical to project which offense will have the advantage.
Running Back: Even
Following an anemic run game performance against Georgia, the return of Boom Williams could not come at a better time. JoJo Kemp, Mikel Horton, and Sihiem King combined to fill in for Williams. The trio could not deliver the explosion play punch that Boom brings to the field.
Vanderbilt is led by Ralph Webb. Webb is considered an upper-level SEC running back and has rushed for 811 yards and 5 touchdowns. He’s joined by shifty Darrius Sims. VU will run the football. Its intent or game plan will not shock and awe. Control the clock, limit turnovers, play solid defense, and put the football into Ralph Webb’s hands.
Wide Receiver/Tight End: TBD
Kentucky has a talented yet inconsistent receiving corps. It’s shown flashes, then regressed. It’s made spectacular catches, then dropped sure touchdowns. Again, which group shows up? The unknown is the only reason for the “TBD” grade. Dorian Baker, Garrett Johnson, Jeff Badet, Blake Bone, and TE CJ Conrad have the skills to be an effective collection of pass receivers. Questions are plentiful. Will the quarterback be accurate and the offensive line protect? If so, will the receivers repeat with the drops or return to the spectacular? Too many unknowns.
WR Trent Sherfield leads the Commodores with 41 catches for 518 yards and two touchdowns. TE Steven Scheu is a pass catching threat and will have to be accounted for on 3rd down. Scheu’s caught 21 passes for 202 yards. RB Ralph Webb is dangerous out of the backfield and has contributed 2 scores in the passing game along with 21 catches.
Kentucky’s vast inconsistency and Vanderbilt’s lack of overall production force this category into the TBD (To Be Determined).
Offensive Line: Neither
An honest and objective evaluation of both teams indicates that neither are getting the job done up front. Cold hard truth. Kentucky is currently ranked 12th in the SEC in Total Offense. Vanderbilt is one spot below at 13th. UK has thrown the football with more success, Vanderbilt has bested the Wildcats on the ground. Whichever team’s offensive line plays the best will win this football game.
Defensive Line: Vanderbilt
With a 25% third down conversion ratio, the Vanderbilt defensive line has been exceptional. Of the Commodore’s Top 10 tacklers, 9 are linebackers or defensive backs. That number describes a front seven that plays in unison. DL penetrates the line of scrimmage as well as eats up blockers. It’s led by DE Caleb Azubike, DT Jay Woods, and DE Adam Butler. Vandy is much deeper than Kentucky in this position group.
DJ Eliot has been trying to find the right three defensive linemen combination to make up the front of his 3-4 scheme. Nose tackles Matt Elam and Adrian Middleton are rotating based on down and distance. DT CJ Johnson has been disruptive at times, but he’s the only Wildcat DL to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks. DE Farrington Huguennin remains steady, but is now sharing more snaps with Courtney Miggins.
LB Zach Cunningham is a force. Expect to hear his name called on numerous occasions. His 68 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 QB sacks rank him high on SEC defensive individual categories. He’s joined by Darreon Herring, and Stephen Weatherly. Georgia’s linebackers are more talented, but this group plays harder and is more disruptive. Linebacker is the group that exhibits the most positional discrepancy. The Commodores are deeper, faster, and much more physical than their Kentucky counterparts.
Josh Forrest and Khalid Henderson are now reunited at inside linebacker. Henderson and Ryan Flannigan will rotate. They’re joined by Jabari Johnson, Denzil Ware, and at times, Jason Hatcher. In order for UK to win the football game, this group will have to play at a higher level than it’s played in a month.
Safety Oren Burkes is the team’s third leading tackler. He’s joined by CB Torren McGaster, CB Tre Herndon, and S Andrew Williamson. All listed rank high in the total tackle category. This means the group is exceedingly aggressive against the run.
Safety AJ Stamps regained Mark Stoops’ trust with a solid effort at Georgia. He will share stamps with Mike Edwards. Expect strong safety Marcus McWilson to play more of a linebacker role on Saturday. True freshmen Chris Westry and Derrick Baity will be heavily counted on for run support.
Special Teams: Even
Neither team is very special in this category. Saturday’s special team analysis is simple. Whichever team makes the fewest mistakes wins. Kicker Austin MacGinnis’ health is still in question as punter Landon Foster is still trying to find his groove in week 10. UK will have a new punt returner; Charles Walker or Garrett Johnson.
What does all this mean?
I’m not going to dance around the issue. Kentucky has to get its collective heads out of their rumps and play with passion. The wagons need to be circled. Cracks in the locker room need to be immediately sealed. The time to shut up and man up is now!
For the Cats, Saturday offers an opportunity to secure its fifth win. This game will be a momentum builder to finish the season on a post-season high note or a nail in the proverbial 2015 coffin. With so much on the line, I would hope that the Wildcats travel to Nashville with full intention and expectation to win the football game.