Kentucky didn't quite get its offense untracked as much as it would have liked against Norfolk State last night, but it might not matter that much if the defense continues to keep opposing teams out of the end zone.
Thanks to a boost from freshman quarterback Randall Cobb, the offense showed some signs of life, but the biggest story of the 2008 UK season continues to be the defense. Steve Brown's unit held its opponent without a touchdown for the second straight week in a 38-3 home-opening win in front of 69,118 at Commonwealth Stadium.
It marks the first time since 1993 that the Cats held a team without an offensive touchdown in back-to-back games and the first time since 1978 that they kept two straight opponents out of the end zone entirely. The last time UK didn't surrender a touchdown for the first two games of a season was 1958.
Coach Rich Brooks said the defense became a sidebar to the offensive struggles in last week's 27-2 win over Louisville and that he hopes people will start to take notice. Norfolk State finished with just 165 yards of total offense, the fewest given up since UK held Vanderbilt to 91 yards in 1996. The Spartans gained 20 yards on 24 offensive plays in the second half.
"You win in the SEC with defense," he said. "The good teams in the SEC that win a lot of games have a great defense. We're not there yet, but we're headed in that direction."
"We feel like we can have one of the nation's best defenses," UK defensive end Jeremy Jarmon said. "We want to keep this going. We're holding teams down now, and we want to show that we can do it against the Floridas and Georgias of the world, too."
Norfolk's opening drive of the game turned out to be its best. The Spartans forced a three-and-out on UK's opening possession, took over at their own 13, and drove to the UK 35-yard line before Justin Castellat misfired on a 52-yard field goal.
The Spartans' only points came after they recovered a fumble by Kentucky quarterback Randall Cobb at the UK 27-yard line late in the second quarter. All that Norfolk State could muster, however, was a 24-yard field goal by Castellat with 19 seconds left in the half.
Norfolk State couldn't get anything going in the final two quarters. The Spartans had one first down, and that was on the next-to-last play of the game.
Cobb threw his first career interception, which gave Norfolk the ball at midfield halfway through the third quarter, but the Spartans went three-and-out. Norfolk got the ball on the UK 23 on its next possession following a 37-yard punt return by Jeremy Wicker, but it lost seven yards on its next three plays, and Castellat missed a 47-yard field goal.
"Our kids tightened up when they had the ball in our territory, and that's good to see," Brown said.
"We look at that as a test," Jarmon said. "When teams get close, we want to push them back out of field-goal range."
About the only thing that the UK defense hasn't done these first two games is get an outright shutout.
"That's next," said senior linebacker Braxton Kelley. "We want to get that shutout real bad."
Cobb helped the offense provide more support than it did in the Louisville game. He passed for 87 yards and a touchdown while running for 49 yards and two scores. Derrick Locke led all rushers with 96 yards on five carries, including a 68-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter that put UK up 31-3.
But make no mistake about it. Right now Kentucky is a defensive football team, and that's just fine by Brooks.
"I said that this was going to be the best defense I've had since I've been here," Brooks said. "I said it all summer, I said it all spring. Did I expect to be quite this good at this point? Probably not."
But if you know Brooks, you know he's never satisfied. And in typical Brooks fashion, he turned around and added, "Now I'm not happy with it. I think we can be better."