Well, there isn’t much to say about the loss at Alabama that Freddie didn’t cover in his article yesterday. The team fought like heck, but in the end they were simply overmatched. The UK defense gave up a lot of yards, but they really only gave up 27 points. Against the #1 team in the nation, I will take that.
The offense did a decent job running the ball at times, but ball security (looking at you 15) was an issue. Stephen Johnson has to do better at protecting the football, but his inefficiency in the passing game was influenced heavily the line’s inability to create any type of pocket or throwing lanes. We just couldn’t block them up front.
On special teams, punter Grant McKinniss continues to shine. So let’s close the books on this one — one we all knew we weren’t going to win anyhow — and move on to Saturday’s tilt with Vanderbilt.
It feels like every other game this season has been a “must-win” game for Stoops, and the Vandy game again falls into that category for a few reasons. First, if Stoops has any chance at the postseason this year the Cats MUST win this one; so it is by definition a must-win game. Second, Stoops and the Cats need to redeem themselves from that terrible loss to the Dores last season. It’s been talked about often, but that loss is so far the defining moment of the Mark Stoops era. There are many steps to take if Stoops is to rewrite his legacy at UK, but avenging that loss in Nashville last year is the only step he can take this week. Finally, if Kentucky is EVER going to climb the proverbial ladder in the SEC, they have to consistently be better than SEC East mid-to-lower tier teams Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and possibly Missouri. UK has now beaten SC three times in a row, and is coming off of a win last year against Mizzou. The Cats have to figure out a way to position themselves firmly ahead of Vandy in the SEC pecking order, and they simply cannot afford a loss at home to the Commodores.
There are several reasons to be optimistic heading into the game this weekend. First, we simply have more talent than Vanderbilt. If at the end of the day it is truly all about Jimmys and Joes, UK has more good players than the Dores do. Second, the UK offense has been developing somewhat of an identity with the run game. I know Vanderbilt’s defense is pretty good, but I believe the Kentucky ground attack will still be able to move the ball against them. If that proves to be true, the Cats will give themselves a good chance to win the game. Third, with Stoops calling the defense the past couple of games UK has shown signs of life on the defensive side of the ball. Simplification may be the reason. The same defensive players that could not line up properly on any given down early in the season are finding themselves in proper position to make plays much more often these days. We aren’t yet making all of those plays, but being in proper position is a huge step in the right direction. Finally, like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, this team appears to have found some heart. This is not the same Kentucky Wildcats that went to the Swamp in week two; they have found a way to fight to the end, even in a game this past weekend that they were never going to win. If we play with that kind of sustained effort against Vandy I believe the end result will be a W.
But it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows — there are also some things that concern me about the matchup with the Commodores. The first thing that worries me is Vanderbilt’s defense. The Kentucky offense under Stephen Johnson is not built to play behind the chains, so if Vandy’s front seven can limit the ground game’s effectiveness on first down there could be a lot of three-and-outs on Saturday. Also, if Vandy can force Johnson into some turnovers it could be a very long day for the UK offense. Second, and related to my first reason to worry, I am concerned that Kentucky may be unable to muster any kind of passing attack to keep the VU defense honest. This is not all about QB play, as the line has to do their part to give him time to throw as well; but ultimately if Johnson cannot complete enough balls to keep the Dores from loading up the box then running lanes will diminish and yards will be hard to come by. Finally, Ralph Webb and the Vandy ground game worry me. Sure they are good players, but they really scare me for one reason — tackling continues to be an issue for UK. Again, our defenders are getting to the right spot now, but they are still missing too many opportunities to wrap up, particularly behind the line of scrimmage. If the UK defense doesn’t tackle well, Vanderbilt could potentially rack up a ton of yards on the ground. If that happens, the Kentucky defense will not be able to exploit Vandy’s tepid QB play. Kentucky has to find a way to make their opponent try to beat them through the air; if UK can make them throw it often then the Cats should get back to .500 on Saturday.
Though I am far from certain of a UK victory, I am optimistic the Cats will get the job done Saturday. The team appears to be a bit more focused and energized the last couple of weeks, and being at home should help put the Cats over the top. I think Kentucky pulls this one out with the final score being 24-20. What do you think will happen on Saturday?