Kentucky defensive coordinator Steve Brown knows the perception is that his defense can't stop the spread offense. He just doesn't agree with it.
The Cats were statistically shredded by a pair of spread teams in 2009. Florida rolled up 495 yards of offense in a 41-7 rout. Mississippi State gained 493 in a 31-24 win.
Brown said that it was a handful of breakdowns that cost his defense in those games more than an inability to defend the spread.
"I think it's a misconception," said Brown, whose defense is expecting to see Louisville run a spread offense in the season opener Saturday. "When you go 65 plays, 61 of them are exactly like you like. But people only remember the four bad ones. It's like a guy covers a guy all day, he catches one big pass on the guy, and all of a sudden he can't cover. It's the same contrast."
Brown also pointed to the Auburn game, where Kentucky held the Tigers' spread attack to 315 yards in a 21-14 road win.
"Sometimes you just have to put things in perspective that people say things that are often not correct," he said. "You can't always listen to what everybody says. You've got to believe in your heart what you're doing and believe in the young men that you're coaching. We had a really good game against Auburn, our kids were in tune with everything, they listened and guys made some big plays. So it can be done. We can defend the spread."
What makes the spread so difficult to defend? Defensive linemen Ricky Lumpkin and DeQuin Evans said it's the complexity of the scheme.
"They can motion people, run the triple option, run a counter," Lumpkin said. "Defensive ends have to get under blocks, and if they don't, the linebacker doesn't know where to go and then there's gaps all over the place. They can run play-action out of it. We just have to know what we have to do, play our keys and rely on each other. Defending the spread is a team thing. You can't have one person mess up. If you have one person mess up, you're going to get gashed."
"It's so much stuff flying around everywhere," Evans said. "You've got to read the pulling guard, you've got to read the option. The spread option goes off the defense making a mistake, so if you make one mistake, they're going to have a big play. But if everybody is gap sound and does their job on defense, we can shut them down."
Evans remembered a play from last year's Vandy game when he made a mistake that led to a big play.
"I had the QB and went for the dive, and was like, 'Aww, man,'" Evans said. "It's a lot more mental than it is physical, these kinds of offenses."
Brown listed two keys to defending the spread: maintaining a controlled, disciplined approach and having the backups on the same page when they come into the game. Brown said at times in the past a team would rip off one or two big runs and then the players started second-guessing themselves.
"You might have a starter tired, and then your backup comes in and he makes a mistake and all of a sudden they gash you," Brown said. "The key for us is maintaining our poise, if we make a mistake, correct it and stop it the next time. We just have to make sure we don't beat ourselves."
Last but not least, the Wildcats have to tackle.
"A lot of times it's not guys missing assignments, it's just busted tackles," Brown said.
Florida and Mississippi State both ran Gators Coach Urban Meyer's version of the spread, which is more run-based than Auburn's. Louisville, UK's first opponent, is coached by Charlie Strong, a Meyer disciple, and is expected to unleash an attack that looks very similar to the Gators'. At least that's what the Wildcats are planning for.
"I expect Louisville to come out and try and do everything that Florida did last year," Evans said. "We've been watching a lot of Florida tapes."
Strong makes no bones that he plans to rely heavily on the ground game. Mississippi State running back Anthony Dixon ran for 252 yards and two TDs against the Cats last year.
"If you look at our offense, people talk about 'spread' or whatever, but it comes down to 'Can we run the football?" Strong said. "Are we going to be able to run the football with our offense? It's a game of toughness and if you can run the football against someone, then you're just saying 'Hey, we're tougher than you are.'"
Brown said the only way to dispel the notion that UK can't deal with the spread is to shut down the Cardinals.
"In life, if you're a competitor at all, and somebody tells you that you can't do something, if you've got a competitive bone in your body, you're going to try and prove them wrong," he said. "Anything you can use to fuel the fire, you use it."
Lumpkin said it's important for UK to end its stigma with the spread now because they'll have to face Florida and Mississippi State later in the year, and Vanderbilt also runs sets out of the spread.
"We have had a problem with it in the past," Lumpkin said. "But we can come out here and make a statement and change it all. It's good that we see it now. Western and Akron might run it, and we know we're going to see it against Florida and Mississippi State. It's good preparation for the season."