Kentucky enters the last four games of the season following the second idle week of 2019 with plenty of momentum. The Wildcats have won two of their last three SEC games and the offensive production led by Lynn Bowden, Jr. has been getting a lot of attention. It’s been exciting to see a dynamic rushing attack develop on that side of the football, but it is the play of the defense that is allowing the team to have its recent success.
This group has been playing outstanding football since the South Carolina game and they are the biggest reason why you should be excited about the month of November. Quietly under Mark Stoops and first-year coordinator Brad White, UK has a chance to close the season very strong. In the previous four games, we’ve seen some specific areas of improvement.
One of the best stats to look at when you are trying to evaluate an offense or defense is the yards per play metric. This measure tells you how a team is performing on a play-by-play basis. Many times, explosive plays and situational football (third downs, red zone, special teams) can determine the difference between a win and a loss, but what you are doing on each play will remain the most telling. After allowing 6.17 yards per play in the first four games, UK has cut that down to 5.04 yards per play in the last 16 quarters.
Trimming at least a yard off of your per game average is a big jump and provides tangible proof that the defense is improving. The 5.04 ypp mark would rank 30th in the FBS if held for a full season and is a sign that this defense is making strides. Entering this home stretch, this number could improve even more if the progress is real. The remaining FBS foes rank 23rd, 87th, and 110th in yards per play offense.
Third Down Success
The biggest key for any defense on any level of football will be getting off the field on third down. The situation that many coaches call the money down is one of the biggest statistical keys to look for when glancing at a box score. Third down conversions extend drives, set the pace, and can seriously tilt field position.
In the first four games, opponents converted 23 of their 48 third downs for a 47.9 percent conversion clip. Currently that would rank in the 120s nationally and that is not good. In the last four games, however, Kentucky’s defense has made a big jump.
Opposing offenses have converted just 18 of their 54 third downs and that comes in at a 33.3 percent clip. That would rank in the top-30 nationally. The Wildcats are doing a better job getting offenses into third downs and getting off the field in those scenarios. That is winning in situational football.
Pass Defense Surges
Entering the season we all knew that a very young Kentucky secondary was going to go through some significant growing pains. After losing Davonte Robinson for the season before fall camp started on top of the many draft picks now on NFL rosters, Mark Stoops had his work cut out for him. Those growing pains hit hard in the first four games of the season.
In the 2-2 start, Kentucky allowed opponents to complete 63.8 percent of their throws and put up 7.56 yards per attempt. That yards per throw number would currently rank in the 80s nationally. The Wildcats were able produce five interceptions in the first four games, but they were sliced up by Florida’s Kyle Trask and Mississippi State’s Garrett Shrader in their first major SEC playing time.
Immediately after, we saw a big jump in production. In the next four games, UK is only giving up a 52.6 percent completion rate with opponents putting up just 4.85 yards per attempt. That last number would rank second nationally. They have obviously benefitted from some advantageous weather situations, but it is clear that this group is doing a much better job in coverage. It has been a team effort from the pass rush to the secondary being in their right spots in both zone and man coverage.
The Wildcats need to start forcing takeaways (haven’t had an interception since the Mississippi State loss) but it is clear that this young secondary is growing in a hurry.
When looking at next season, Kentucky will return 7 of their top 10 tacklers and what is looking like as many as nine starters. There are a ton of things to be excited about for next season, but this group has a chance to do something special in the last four games.
UK has a defense playing extremely hard and with a ton of confidence entering the final month of the season. With the remaining weather conditions likely to include many bad weather situations, this group will need to carry the football team. The defense still has areas of improvement needed (run defense, creating takeaways) but there are many positive things to bring forward. This group has been very efficient and is playing very good situational football. Surprisingly, the pass defense is leading the way.
Expect for the the offense to continue to run the ball and for the defense to play fast, hard, and to create winning situations for the football team.