Ok, football fans, particularly Kentucky football fans. Let’s play “To Be Honest?”
After watching Auburn and Ole Miss decimate the Kentucky defense, especially in the secondary, raise your hands if you thought the Wildcat defense would completely shut down the Air Raid of Mississippi State and force three interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) at Tennessee and lead the Cats to a 34-7 upset of the No. 18 Vols in Neyland Stadium Saturday afternoon, the first for Big Blue in Knoxville since 1984?
Anyone? Anyone? Show of hands?
No one, not even the most ardent of Kentucky fans, could see this run of defensive excellence coming. Not after the first two weeks of the season, which saw the Cats' defense get shredded like cheese on a grater. The Cats (2-2) have done a complete 180 on the defensive side of the ball, going from sadsacks in the secondary to ballhawks seemingly overnight.
When you consider that Kentucky has forced 16 turnovers, 10 in the last two weeks, growth is a vast understatement. Couple this quantum leap with the UK linebackers gaining their traction after graduation losses and the unfortunate loss of star in the making Chris Oats, and the improving pass rush of end Joshua Paschal, the Cats' defense has went from toothless to dominant in a matter of weeks.
What has been the formula for this success? To be honest it's been a variety of factors that has led to the UK defensive renaissance. Consider the following five points:
The defensive resurgence has to start with coaching. UK coach Mark Stoops is a defensive coach first and foremost, and after the Ole Miss debacle Stoops said he would get more involved with the defense and it shows. Along with defensive coordinator Brad White, the staff has become more hands-on and the defense seems to have a much better feel of what is needed for success.
It has taken the UK defensive backs time to find their footing. The talent has always been there (Brandin Echols, Yusef Corker, Tyrell Aijan, and Kelvin Joseph). But with practice time altered by COVID-19 protocols, the secondary still needed that valuable experience that only repetition can provide. They seem to be getting in the groove.
The linebackers needed reps, too. Considering that in the last two years the UK linebacker corps has graduated an All-American and Defensive Player of the Year (Josh Allen), the emotional heart and soul of the defense (Kash Daniel), and Oats, there had to be inevitable ups and downs. Again the talent is there (DeAndre Square, Jared Casey, JJ Weaver), Jamar “Boogie” Watson is becoming a pass rush force, and Jamin Davis is making plays and tackles en masse.
Josh Paschal has become a force. Paschal has went from an awesome feel-good story, battling back from cancer to a starting spot on defense, to a legitimate force from his defensive end position. The senior has become a force and possible NFL player someday.
Every defense needs a good punter. Last but not least, having the nation’s best punter in Max Duffy flipping the field and allowing the defense to play with some cushion helps matters tremendously. The All-American time and again has rescued the offense from poor field positions and has helped the Cat defenders have more freedom to make plays by booming punt after punt fifty yards on average.
Combine the five ingredients and you have the makings of a dominant SEC defense.
Who saw that coming?
Let’s recap the historic victory in Knoxville, courtesy of the fine folks at UK Athletics:
Team Records and Series Information
Kentucky is 2-2 and Tennessee is 2-2.
Tennessee leads the series 81-26-9.
This was UK’s first win in Knoxville since 1984.
This was the first time that UK has defeated a ranked Tennessee team in Knoxville.
This was UK’s largest margin of victory vs. Tennessee since a 27-0 win in 1935.
This was UK’s largest margin of victory in Knoxville since the first game of the series, a 56-0 win in 1893.
At 116 games, it is UK’s most-played rivalry, and the third-most played rivalry in SEC history.
Next for Kentucky: the Wildcats are at Missouri on Saturday, Oct. 24. Game time is 4 p.m. ET (3 p.m. CT in Columbia) and it will be televised by the SEC Network.
Kentucky’s last win over a ranked SEC team was in 2018 at home over No. 14 Mississippi State.
Kentucky’s last road win over a ranked SEC team was 2018 at Florida.
This is the largest margin of victory on the road vs. an Associated Press-ranked team in school history.
UK got interceptions on three consecutive possessions in the second quarter, returning the first two for touchdowns.
It was the first time that UK had defensive touchdowns in consecutive games since 2015, when Mike Edwards (vs. Charlotte) and Josh Forrest (vs. Louisville) had interception touchdowns.
It was the first time that UK had two defensive touchdowns in the same game since 2014 vs. Louisiana-Monroe, when Josh Forrest and Marcus McWilson had interception touchdowns.
Kentucky has nine interceptions in two games, most in a two-game stretch since 1993 vs. Kent State (two) and Florida (seven).
This is the fewest points UK has allowed in consecutive weeks vs. SEC opponents (nine) since 1976 vs. Florida and at Tennessee (also nine).
Kentucky played a dominant second half, winning 17-0.
UK offensive possessions were touchdown, field goal, touchdown and a 65-yard drive to run out the clock.
The UK defense allowed only 84 yards in the second half, 65 of which did not come until Tennessee’s final possession.
· UK’s game captain was linebacker Boogie Watson.
· Senior quarterback Terry Wilson completed 12 of 15 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown.
He also had eight carries for a net 32 yards.
· Sophomore running back Chris Rodriguez led the Wildcats on the ground with 13 carries for 73 yards, including a two-yard touchdown run that closed the scoring.
· Senior running back A.J. Rose rushed for 22 yards.
Rose now has 1,497 career rushing yards, moving past Mike Fanuzzi for 22nd place in school history.
· Junior wide receiver Allen Dailey Jr. caught a one-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. It is his first TD of the season and second of his career. For the game, he caught three passes for 25 yards.
· Senior wide receiver Josh Ali paced the Wildcats receiving with four catches for 38 yards.
· Sophomore cornerback Kelvin Joseph jumped the route on a short sideline pass in the second quarter, intercepting the pass and racing 41 yards for a touchdown.
He also had an interception last Saturday vs. Mississippi State. For the game, he also had four tackles and a pass breakup.
· Following Joseph’s TD return, junior linebacker Jamin Davis intercepted a pass over the middle and returned it 85 yards for a touchdown. He went on to have a career-high 12 tackles.
Davis also had an interception last week vs. Mississippi State and has four in his career.
It is the eighth-longest interception return in school history and Kentucky’s longest interception return since David Johnson had a 95-yard TD return at Cincinnati in 1986.
It is UK’s longest interception return vs. an SEC opponent since Darryl Bishop had a 97-yard runback in 1972.
It is UK’s longest interception return in an SEC road game since Joe Stephan had an 89-yarder at Florida in 1969.
Following Davis’ TD return, junior safety Tyrell Ajian had an interception, setting up a field goal. It is Ajian’s third-career interception.
· Senior linebacker Boogie Watson wore uniform No. 22 today in honor of teammate Chris Oats, who is dealing with a serious medical condition.
Watson had six tackles, including a six-yard quarterback sack, plus a QB hurry.
It is his team-high third sack of the season and he has 16.5 in his career, one short of Jeremy Jarmon for fifth place in school history.
· Redshirt freshman linebacker J.J. Weaver had six tackles, including two for loss, both career highs.
· Senior punter Max Duffy punted three times for a 46.7-yard average.
· Senior kicker Matt Ruffolo made all of his kicks today, field goals of 30 and 27 yards, plus all four extra points.
Shane Shackleford is a regional sports columnist from Speedwell, Tenn. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.