Over my 35 plus years of following Kentucky Wildcat football, you can be assured that when Big Blue plays the Vanderbilt Commodores it is going to be a contest that can be summed up in a single word.
The Cats had to survive an ugly offensive display and rode its powerful defense and its Heisman workhorse Benny Snell Jr. to a 14-7 victory over the Dores Saturday night at a cold and windy Kroger Field.
UK (6-1, 4-1 SEC) needed every defensive stop they could get and every yard Snell could plow for to survive Vandy’s upset attempt on the road. Make no mistake, even though the Commodores have a losing record (3-5, 0-4 SEC), Vandy has been a tough out for every opponent they have played (ask Notre Dame and Florida). But the Cats made the necessary plays down the stretch to secure the hard fought victory.
Even though the Cats won, there are some things that must be corrected if UK has aspirations to make it to Atlanta and the SEC Championship game. With this in mind, let’s assess the Cat performance, shall we?
OFFENSE (C): Truly this is a story of two types of offense, actually the only two types of offense; passing and rushing. If you grade them individually, the pass offense was a F and the rush offense was an A, so if you average both together you get a C.
First, thank goodness we have number 26 in the backfield. Snell put the offense on his shoulders, carrying the ball 32 times for 169 yards and the game-clinching score. Snell is a warrior, and he and his offensive line came up aces when the Cats had to have it. QB Terry Wilson had a nice night rushing as well, toting the rock for 91 yards on 12 attempts. For the night, the Cats rushed for 280 yards on 53 attempts.
Now let’s address the passing game. Wilson was 3-9 for 18 yards and a score to Lynn Bowden Jr. But it’s painfully obvious the Cats are struggling through the air. A lot of fans want to lay the blame squarely on Wilson, and while he has his moments with accuracy, some blame must be laid on the receiving corps. On several occasions Cat receivers dropped passes that hit them in the hands. That’s not on Wilson. The truth is Wilson and his receivers have to get on the same page. While it is nice to have a power run game and road graders for offensive linemen, the truth is teams will load the box with 8-9 defenders and dare the Cats to pass. Kentucky must answer that with some semblance of a passing game.
DEFENSE (A): Another wonderful performance by the UK defense. The Cats held Vandy to 68 yards rushing and did a masterful job limiting the Commodores to yardage between the 20s and only one TD. After the Cats turned the ball over twice on its first two possessions, the defense held the team together until the offense could shake the cobwebs out.
Individually, Cat LB Josh Allen came up huge once again. The All-American candidate tallied eight tackles (two for loss), two sacks, a pass breakup, and a forced fumble of Vandy QB Kyle Shurmur late in the fourth that sealed the Cats win. The Cats also had big nights from Kash Daniel (10 tackles) and Mike Edwards (9 tackles.)
Defensive stat of the night: The Commodores had 11 offensive drives in the game. The Kentucky defense held them to a single score, seven punts, and two turnovers. That’s pretty impressive at any level.
SPECIAL TEAMS (C): All season long, I’ve touted the Cats special teams as, well, special. However, I am kind of concerned with the field goal kicking. Senior kicker Miles Butler hasn’t been consistent, missing a chip shot with the swirling central Kentucky wind to his back. Waiting in the wings is true freshman Chance Poore, though. Coach Mark Stoops is trying to save his redshirt which I totally understand. But as the season gets later, the weather only worsens and the need to place kick becomes paramount. With the season the Cats are playing for, Stoops may have to burn the redshirt and play Poore.
Punter Max Duffy was his usual consistent self, punting five times for a 43-yard average. If I were special teams coordinator Dean Hood, I’d go every year to the land down under and get the best Australian punter I could find and bring him to Lexington. But that’s just me.
It was also good to see Bowdern break a 90-yard kickoff return for a TD to open the third quarter even though it was called back due to holding. The Cats HAVE to get Bowden the ball however they can. He brings big play capability any time he touches the ball.
After the win, it was noticeable that hardly anyone mentioned that with the win the Cats achieved bowl eligibility with their sixth win. Everyone knows the Cats are playing for something more. That is a complement to Stoops and the state of the program right now. I love it.
I am concerned with the offense though. We can run the ball for sure against anyone behind that massive o-line and Snell/Rose/Wilson. But at some point we need the capacity to pass the ball to open run lanes. Wilson will improve throwing the ball, I think. He throws a nice tight spiral and is pretty accurate. The receivers have got to make some plays for him though, especially when the ball is hitting them in the hands. But again, we need to realize there was a swirling 40 mph wind in the stadium Saturday night so any passes were going to be affected.
Next up on the agenda is a “business trip” to Columbia to visit the Missouri Tigers. The Tigers have a pyrotechnic offense once again led by their star signal caller Drew Lock and their bevy of receivers. The Tigers are coming off a 65-33 win over Memphis where Lock threw for 450 yards. However, the UK defense will be a stiff challenge to the Mizzou offense and the defense has a difficult time stopping the run. Those two things can bode well for the Wildcats as they search for their seventh win on the season and take another step closer to Atlanta and the SEC championship game.
Shane Shackleford is a regional sports columnist from Speedwell, Tenn. You can follow and contact him through a variety of media, including his website Coach Shack’s Corner, Facebook, Twitter @shack_daddy_1, or email at email@example.com.