Kentucky secured is first win of the unusual 2020 football season in the most unpredictable manner possible.
A week after Kentucky’s pass defense was picked apart by Ole Miss, the Wildcats completely owned the Air Raid. For the first time in Mike Leach’s career, his offense did not record a point. The Wildcats won 24-2, the fewest points ever scored by a Mike Leach team.
This victory had a little bit of everything — good, bad and ugly (of the evil step-sister variety).
Kentucky had not forced a turnover through two games. “Make plays” was a point of emphasis from Mark Stoops and Brad White during this week’s practice. A few pass-break-ups, tackles for loss and a turnover might’ve been enough. Instead, these Wildcats went overboard.
Kentucky picked off SIX Mississippi State passes. The six interceptions tied for the second-most in school history and it’s the most since UK picked off Florida seven times in the infamous 1993 loss at the wire to Chris Doering and the Gators. One interception turned into a Jordan Wright touchdown and another was returned 76 yards by Josh Paschal to the two yard-line, setting up a Chris Rodriguez touchdown on the following play. Two of the UK interceptions were in the end zone and three were in the red zone.
Red Zone Defense
The red zone had not been kind to Kentucky on either side of the ball entering Saturday night’s game. The offense struggled to put up points and the defense was letting opponents score touchdowns 80 percent of the time. Thanks to a timely interception before halftime by Jamin Davis, Paschal’s big play and Boogie Watson’s strip-pick at the goal line, Mississippi State was 0-for-3 in the red zone and 0-for-4 on scoring opportunities inside the UK 40 yard-line.
Kentucky’s defense made big plays when the Wildcats needed it most and that’s why Kentucky was victorious.
**However, Kentucky’s offense wasn’t great at capitalizing on mistakes. Eddie Gran’s offense only scored 17 points on six trips inside the Miss. State 40 yard-line. We can focus more on the bad later, but a win is a win, right? Now, more good…
Most coaches would have told their edge rushers to sit this one out. The secret to success against the Air Raid is to drop seven or eight into zone coverage and force the opponent to dink and dunk down the field. To effectively implement this strategy, defensive backs are probably best suited for this role.
Instead of sitting in nickel and dime all night with extra defensive backs, Mark Stoops trusted Boogie Watson, Jordan Wright and J.J. Weaver to make plays in pass coverage, and boy did they. Boogie stopped a touchdown by ripping the ball from a defender’s hands, his sack ended the Bulldogs’ final drive and Wright’s pick six all but ended the game. Those big plays jumped off the stat sheet. The plays taken for granted were the tackles five yards down the field that prevented Miss. State from turning short gains into chunk plays. The stat lines from the inside and outside backers are impressive:
- Jamin Davis: 11 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU
- DeAndre Square: 9 tackles, 1 PBU, 1 QBH
- Jared Casey: 6 tackles
- Jordan Wright: 6 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFLs, 1 INT, 1 PBU
- J.J. Weaver: 4 tackles, 1 PBU
- Marquez Bembry: 4 tackles
- Boogie Watson: 2 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT, 1 TFL, 2 QBH
There weren’t many plays made by the UK offense that went for more than 10 yards. Almost all of them were made by Kentucky’s tight ends. Brenden Bates’ first career reception went for 14 yards, Justin Rigg had a 12-yard reception and Keaton Upshaw caught a 12-yard touchdown pass in traffic. In total, UK’s tight ends were targeted seven times, a number that will bring music to the ears of many UK fans.
Third Down Defense
Mississippi State couldn’t do anything on third down, converting just 3-of-17 third downs on the night. Much of that success can be attributed to exceptional early down defense. Kentucky forced Miss. State into third and longs all night, facing on average of third and 8.7 in those 17 attempts.
Redemption for Kelvin Joseph
The cornerback known as Bossman Fat was the target of much ridicule after the LSU transfer talked a big game, yet failed to execute in the first two weeks of the season. Was he that bad? Probably not, but his mistakes were far from mundane.
Even though many fans share disdain for his cockiness, that’s what helped him bounce back against Miss. State. No. 1’s confidence was unswayed after the slow start to the season. He responded by recording his first career interception, the only interception by the UK secondary,
The UK defense gave the Wildcats an opportunity to deliver a dagger early in the third quarter. Leach inexplicably went for it on fourth down deep in his own territory on he first series of the second half, giving Kentucky the ball 34 yards away from the end zone. Two plays later, A.J. Rose put the ball on the turf, coughing up a scoring opportunity for the second straight week. Even though it was a questionable call overturned on replay, it’s still unacceptable for a fifth-year senior.
Wide Receiver Play
Kentucky’s wide receivers caught four passes, two of which were “pop” passes to Josh Ali that essentially acted as a jet sweep. Kentucky’s linebackers caught four passes by themselves, and that doesn’t include the 76-yard scamper by a former linebacker, Josh Paschal. The big man made the most explosive play of the day.
Of course, it wasn’t all on the wide receivers. Terry Wilson played poorly, the worst Kentucky fans have seen since he struggled against Vanderbilt almost two years ago. Even so, there were drops that disrupted the offense from finding any sort of rhythm whatsoever. Many fans loathe the screen game and those never had a chance because receivers weren’t blocking defenders. The UK passing game was abhorrent for most of the game. The more I type, the more I regret not pushing this down into “The Ugly.”
More Special Teams Snafus
Josh Ali did not make an obvious mistake, but he gave up countless hidden yards by failing to catch the punt, letting it roll deep into Kentucky territory. Those hidden yards don’t compare to the 48 yards lost by Kentucky on one snap that skied high over the punter’s head. Luckily, Max Duffy had the wherewithal to boot the ball out of the end zone for a safety, the only two points the Bulldogs scored all day.
Third Quarter Offense
Kentucky ran 14 plays in the third quarter for -12 yards. You can’t play offensive football any worse than that.
The first three games of the 2020 season feel like a lifetime of football. Kentucky fans have seen a different version of the Wildcats every week. Against one Egg Bowl opponent, the offense could not be stopped while the defense appeared hapless. A week later against the other Mississippi school, UK’s offense went nowhere fast while the defense dominated.
How good is this Kentucky football team? Nobody knows.