Kentucky’s defense defied all logic, blanking Mike Leach’s offense for the first time in his career and forcing six Mississippi State turnovers last Saturday at Kroger Field.
“You hope you can play the best you can play and limit scoring opportunities, limit explosives and force them to go the full length of the field and hopefully limit points, force field goals, maybe get a turnover. But you don’t actually go into every game saying ‘we’re going to pitch a shut out.’ It’s rare when it happens and it’s special when it does,” defensive coordinator Brad White said this week. “The key isn’t so much the point number. It’s about playing and executing. If we do that, good things usually happen.”
This week the UK defense faces a much different task against a Tennessee team that relies on their physicality in the trenches to have success in the run game. Even though it’s unlike their early-season opponents, the style better suits Kentucky’s defense.
“There’s not too much of a difference,” between game-planning for the Bulldogs and the Vols, said senior defensive lineman Phil Hoskins. “As loose as we were last week and then this week having to come back in and get back to the basics and the grind and focus of it, but I thought about that question and I feel like there’s not too much of a difference. It’s just going back to what we know because last week felt a little off. This is back to what we know.”
Entering the Mississippi State game we didn’t know what to expect from the UK defense. Picked apart by Ole Miss, the Wildcats did not look like the pass defense that ranked in the top five nationally in 2019. Ahead of the matchup with Leach’s Air Raid, White implored his unit to discover their identity by playing hard-nosed, disciplined football.
“Anytime you play well it really helps build that confidence and trust, not only in themselves but in each other. We talked about going into that game. We’re continually trying to build sort of our identity for this year. Obviously, playing a game as well as they did collectively, it helps. The thing you find out real fast, and we’ve talked about it as a team, is that you’re just one week away,” said White.
“They had a really good week of practice leading up to Mississippi State and it translated into solid results. They need to understand that you have to have that every single week. Every single week, every single day and everyone’s not going to have the best practice ever. There’s going to be mistakes. That’s why we practice, but it’s the focus, the intensity that you prepare that comes to bare on Saturdays. Hopefully that lesson continues to be learned and we have another solid performance. We’ve got a really strong opponent that we’ve gotta play on Saturday, obviously a different style than we faced last week and so we better be physically ready to use our hands and strike.”
Kentucky’s defense swarmed to make tackles in the open field. When adversity struck, they did not panic. Instead, they created havoc plays, forcing three Miss. State turnovers in the red zone, two of which were passes picked off in the end zone. After a two-week turnover drought, Kentucky forced six. Ahead of the game White told his team once they got one, turnovers would come in bunches. He was right. Now that they’ve seen some success, the snowball is rolling downhill.
“The first two weeks we missed a couple of plays here and there that was uncommon for us as a defense,” said senior outside linebacker Boogie Watson.
“I think that last game can definitely give us the confidence boost to know that we’re able to make those plays that we missed the first two games. We’ll definitely be excited to back out there and repeat, make the same sort of plays, make good plays on the ball, play physical and try to get a win.”
Physicality will be the name of the game against a Tennessee offensive line that’s loaded with NFL talent. UK is embracing the challenge in the trenches. Despite the successes of last week, there’s still plenty of room to improve in Knoxville.
“We hold ourselves to a high standard and so do our coaches. There’s definitely more to give or show from us. We have a lot more that we’re going to unleash,” said Hoskins. “We’re going to do it day by day, week by week and then finish out.”