JOE COX: Last-Second Defeat Leaves Kentucky Feeling Defensive
In the closing seconds of last Saturday’s game at Kroger Field, it seemed that the Kentucky defense had done what it has done so many times this season—survive by the narrowest of margins. Ole Miss QB Jordan Ta’amu extended his arm and fumbled the ball away at the UK 7-yard line. But the call on the field of a fumble was overturned, and three plays later, Ta’amu hit D.K. Metcalf for the game-winning touchdown in a 37-34 victory.
So instead, Kentucky did the other thing it has done all season—defended the pass very badly. Kentucky is last in the SEC in passing yardage allowed (279.4 per game), pass defense efficiency, and completion percentage allowed (64.3%). The only team that has failed to pass for 209 or more yards against the Wildcats was Mississippi State, which simply ran the ball down UK’s throat. Last season, Kentucky gave up 206 yards per game by the air, and even awful 2-10 UK teams from Joker Phillips’s last season and Mark Stoops’s first allowed “only” 230 yards per game in the air.
Making the story odder, Kentucky’s secondary was expected to be a team strength. Senior safety Mike Edwards was an All-SEC selection, and cornerbacks Chris Westry and Derrick Baity were hyped for similar accolades. So far has Westry fallen that he was out of the starting lineup and his former backup, JUCO Lonnie Johnson had coverage on the game-ending touchdown.
For the second consecutive season, Mark Stoops’s defense has been AWOL for a portion of the season. Last year, it was the beginning, when UK gagged up a 35-17 lead to Southern Mississippi before losing, was crushed by Florida, and then watched a mediocre New Mexico State team score 42 on the Wildcats. Total damage? 520 yards to Southern Miss, 564 to Florida, and 500 to New Mexico State. That said, changes were made, and Stoops’s defense was improved thereafter—averaging 406 yards per game allowed thereafter.
This season, UK’s defense started reasonably well, allowing 349 yards per game for the first five games, and holding each opponent under 400 yards. In the four games since? 482 yards per game, including giving up 355 yards passing to Missouri and 382 to Mississippi.
The good news is that Kentucky’s offense has showed signs of life. Benny Snell leads the SEC in rushing yardage and his next touchdown on the ground will tie him for UK’s career record in that department. Yes, Snell is a sophomore. QB Steven Johnson continues to lead drives to give Kentucky chances to win, even if Saturday’s didn’t end in victory.
But for Mark Stoops, if the next four games don’t show a return to form, the question facing him after 2017 will be why a defensive-minded coach on an improving team has had such terrible recent results, especially from his secondary. Kentucky will close the regular season facing an efficient QB (Shurmur of Vanderbilt), a talented young passer (Fromm of Georgia), and a semi-superhero (Jackson of Louisville). If Kentucky wants to spend its holidays somewhere sandy and sunny as opposed to Birmingham or Memphis, the pass defense better improve in a hurry.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books. His most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games) is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.