After letting Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss offense do as it pleased Saturday night at Kroger Field, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops is searching for answers, particularly in the pass defense. Kentucky’s defense will not be the first to look foolish against the Ole Miss offense this fall, but the Wildcats did not do much to help themselves.
“There was parts of that game where we were really out of sorts defensively. Defensively we just didn’t play good enough. We need to put our players in a better position. We need to coach better. We need to play better,” Stoops said Monday afternoon.
“That team puts extreme pressure on you with how fast they go. It is extremely, extremely fast. There are times in that game where we played so many plays well, and then there’s plays where they’re going to make you pay and they’re going to get chunks and they did. We have been very good at not giving up explosive plays and gave up way too many explosive plays in that game to be successful and really that’s the tale of the game.”
Uncharacteristic of a Mark Stoops defense, last year the Wildcats gave up only 28 passing plays of 20 yards or more, tied for the second fewest the nation. It was one of the many statistical categories where the Wildcats’ pass defense ranked in the top five nationally.
In just two games UK has already surrendered nine pass plays of 20 yards or more, a third of what they allowed through 13 games in 2019. Isaac Mingo became the second straight opposing wide receiver to haul in two touchdowns and more than 100 receiving yards. Quarterback Matt Corral had only five incompletions, 320 yards, four touchdowns and no turnovers to finish with a 221 passer rating. Only two other quarterbacks have posted a higher passer rating against FBS competition this fall. Kentucky ranks dead last in opposing quarterback passer rating, with Nix and Corral averaging 195..63 passer rating, almost 20 more points than the team ranked 73rd.
So what exactly is wrong with Kentucky’s pass defense? Almost every player returned, and they added a fifth-year senior and a former top 100 recruit. On paper it should be better, not worse. There’s no easy answer to the simple question, but when Stoops watched film from Saturday’s game, this is what he saw go wrong:
“There’s a variety of things. We got beat one-on-one. We got beat in another jump ball, tough matchup with a PI (pass interference) that was critical late in the game. I thought there was three PIs that, I’m not questioning the call, I’m just saying they were bang-bang plays where our defenders are challenging talented wide receivers and I’m okay with that. We’ve gotta make plays on the ball. It’s very hard. They had a lot of stress on us and there were times when we just flat out didn’t compete well enough. That’s not good enough. I feel like we had some guys in there and we gotta find the right mixture.”
Finding the correct personnel combination appears to be at the heart of the defense’s problem. Unlike a typical season, in a ten-game SEC schedule Stoops and defensive coordinator Brad White do not have the luxury of time to get creative with various packages against an Eastern Michigan or a Toledo. They’ve learned the hard way through two games.
“In some cases you feel like athletically guys can help you, but mentally they’re hurting you. There’s that combination and you’ve just gotta find the right mixture,” Stoops said. “We have some options. We’ve gotta find the right mix. We’ve all gotta do a better job putting them in position, everybody owning their area, their area of expertise and playing better. I believe we will. That’s the worst — it’s been a long time since we gave up 42 points.”
Even though one player might be the best one-on-one defender, that does the defense no good if the player blows his assignment. Ole Miss took advantage of Kentucky’s mistakes on Saturday. The UK defense has not taken advantage of any of their opponents’ offensive mistakes in 2020. Kentucky has not forced a turnover since the last play of the Belk Bowl.
“We’re not getting turnovers. That is concerning to me. It’s not good enough. Seems like both games there’s balls, the football is floating around down there and they did a nice job scooping it up, but we have to create it. We have to create some turnovers. Sometimes the ball has to bounce your way. Other times you have to create it.”
There’s no time to waste. Kentucky’s pass defense must improve in a hurry to be ready for the challenge Mike Leach’s air raid offense will present Saturday night. It’s a different type of a challenge, but this isn’t the first time these players have been backed into a corner.
Almost one year ago to the date, Kentucky was 2-3 and without a quarterback. With the help of some extraordinary play from Lynn Bowden, the Wildcats picked themselves up by their bootstraps and won six of their final eight games.
“I’m excited to get in our team meeting and get on with it, face the reality of our situation. Nobody’s going to point fingers. It’s all about watching some plays, watching this film and walking away from that session that you know we can fix some of these things; that you know we can play better; build on the good things the we’re doing and get some things fixed. I feel confident that we will, but you never know,” Stoops said.
“Each year each team has a new identity so this group has to step up and so I’m certainly going to lean on the leadership of this group and everbody’s gotta look at themselves. When you fall to 0-2 you can respond with a reality check of the situation is what it is and you can fold to the pressure, or you can rise above it and man up, own it and move on.”