Locke injury has affected passing game, too

ccosby@herald-leader.comNovember 5, 2010 

The overall numbers still look good for the University of Kentucky football team's offense: The Wildcats rank fourth in the Southeastern Conference in scoring offense (32.8), fourth in total offense (419.4) and second in pass offense (278.3).

But things haven't come quite as easily the last couple of weeks for the Cats in back-to-back losses to Georgia and Mississippi State. The Wildcats have been bogged down by turnovers, committing four in each game.

So as good as UK's numbers are, it's hard not to wonder what might have been if the Cats had taken better care of the ball.

"It's always easy to say 'what-if,' and there's always going to be some of that," quarterback Mike Hartline said. "But we've just got to focus on these last three games and try to play mistake-free football. When we haven't turned it over, not many people have been able to stop us."

Seven Wildcats have lost fumbles this season — Randall Cobb, Donald Russell, Derrick Locke, Raymond Sanders, Chris Matthews, La'Rod King and Hartline.

"You keep working on taking care of the ball in practice, but there's not really one thing you need to fix," UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "It's not like there's just fumbling all the time."

Derrick Locke's shoulder injury hasn't helped. Kentucky has slipped all the way to 10th in the SEC in rushing, and without the big-play threat of Locke in the backfield, defenses have been able to disrupt the passing game.

"It obviously affects you when you lose a guy who's a home-run threat out of the backfield," Sanders said. "We haven't had that happening much since he's been out."

The lack of an explosive running game has had a trickle-down effect to the offensive line. Once the SEC leader in fewest sacks allowed, UK has given up 10 the past three weeks and are now tied for fourth (13).

"We've played some upper-echelon defenses, and we've played from behind," offensive line coach Mike Summers said. "That puts you in a situation to where there's very little guesswork to what you're doing. It increases the difficulty up front because now the kitchen sink comes at you. We have not done as good a job as we did the first half of the season in keeping Mike clean."

Teams have also come at the Wildcats with a variety of blitz packages. Georgia outside linebacker Justin Houston terrorized the Cats with 3.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble, fumble recovery, pass deflection and quarterback hurry. And Mississippi State blitzed non-stop. UK was able to burn the MSU blitz once, when Hartline found Cobb over the middle for a 48-yard TD strike, but more often than not Hartline was running for his life.

Locke could return Saturday against Charleston Southern, but the Cats should expect to see plenty of pressure in their final three games.

"That's what any team would do to us; take away the strength that we've got (the passing game) and put as much pressure on us as (they) can," Summers said. "We have to block better. There's no way to measure the impact Derrick has had on our offense because he's such a talented player, and when you remove a major piece of your offense it makes it difficult to replace that. It leaves a big hole. But we have to compensate for that up front and do a better job of blocking."

Locke to dress Saturday

Kentucky senior tailback Derrick Locke will dress for Saturday's game against Charleston Southern, and it will be a game-time decision whether he will play or not, UK Coach Joker Phillips said after Thursday's practice. Locke has missed UK's past three games with a shoulder injury.

Also, freshman Raymond Sanders, who started at tailback last week at Mississippi State, is questionable with an abdominal strain. Phillips said that sophomore Donald Russell, who started the first two games Locke was out before being benched for Sanders, will start against CSU.

Military Appreciation Day

Saturday's game will be the annual Military Appreciation Day at Commonwealth Stadium.

During the pre-game show, the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell will conduct a parachute demonstration, and at the end of the national anthem there will be an F-15E Strike Eagle flyover, conducted by the U.S. Air Force's 391st Fighter Squadron from Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho.

Personnel from the Kentucky National Guard and the Veterans Hospital also will be in attendance.

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