Small upgrades could pay big dividends for Cats

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 5, 2009 

It's all about technique. Execution. Attention to detail.

They say football is a game of inches, and sometimes the success of a season is determined by incremental improvement not much bigger than that.

From small things, big things come.

In that vein, with Kentucky playing Miami (Ohio) in Saturday's opener at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, here are 10 little things that Kentucky must do to have a big season.

1. Cover kickoffs: Tim Masthay has graduated. So that steady stream of opponents starting drives at their own 20 because of fielding kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks is probably over.

Coach Rich Brooks has been openly anxious about how his team will do in this area. If you're not getting touchbacks, then you're getting returns. The Cats have to do a good job stopping returns.

2. Keep the offense on the field: Kentucky ranked dead last in the Southeastern Conference last year on third down, converting just 31.4 percent of the time. Little wonder then it averaged two fewer touchdowns per game than the season before.

3. Be pass efficient: Mike Hartline's passing yardage total doesn't matter. Randall Cobb's receiving yardage total doesn't matter. What matters is efficiency. And last year, out of 119 teams, Kentucky ranked 105th.

The Cats were one of only two teams (Vanderbilt the other) to rank among the worst 16 teams in pass efficiency and still have a winning record. Might not want to try that again, however.

4. Get Seiber straight and true: Senior kicker Lones Seiber enters his fourth year as UK's field-goal kicker. He made 11 of 19 field-goal attempts as a freshman, 16 of 25 as a sophomore, then returned to 11 of 19 last year. His achy hip is reportedly better. That's good news because the kicking game is a little thing that usually comes up very, very big.

5. Ratchet up the red zone: The previous paragraphs lead into this paragraph. Last season, UK was 10th in the SEC in red-zone offense, scoring on 32 of 43 opportunities inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Only Mississippi State and Auburn were worse. Neither of those teams went to a bowl game in 2008.

6. Keep that positive turnover margin: The top five teams in turnover margin last year won 45 of 67 games. Kentucky ranked 35th in that category. That's good, but it could be better.

When the Cats catapulted from a 3-8 mark in 2005 to a Music City Bowl title and 8-5 record in 2006, they tied for second nationally in turnover margin. A return to that would almost guarantee dancing in the streets.

7. Shave some more yards off total defense: Good news last year, UK's defense allowed an average of 322.4 yards per game, its best showing since 1989. Bad news last year, that still ranked 11th in the 12-team SEC. Such is the problem with playing in the nation's toughest league. You can be really good, and still lose.

8. Take advantage of a schedule quirk: Traditional doormat Mississippi is a top-10 team this year. The Rebels are not on UK's 2009 schedule. Traditional power Auburn is coming off a 5-7 season and is sporting a new head coach who went 5-19 at his last job. Auburn is on UK's 2009 schedule.

9. Be healthy: A not so little thing. A thing so often determined by luck. But this year, the Cats need a little injury luck on their side.

Rich Brooks' team enjoys an open date next Saturday. Eleven straight games follow over the next 11 Saturdays. No breaks. So the Cats can't afford to suffer too many breaks or sprains or pulls or tears.

10. Don't lose to the teams you're not supposed to lose to: Kentucky has been to three straight bowl games in large part because it has won 14 straight against non-conference opponents. Miami (Ohio) is a non-conference opponent. Losing Saturday, as Rich Brooks said this week, "is unacceptable."

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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