Limiting turnovers against No. 1 LSU a major challenge for Kentucky

LSU's takeaway margin 4th in the nation, while UK's is 78th

jclay@herald-leader.comOctober 1, 2011 

It was six minutes into last Saturday night's prime-time showdown between Louisiana State and West Virginia in Morgantown.

WVU quarterback Geno Smith, running Dana Holgorsen's "Air Raid" offense, completed a short pass on the left sideline to wide receiver Bradley Starks, who immediately turned upfield.

No sooner had Starks pivoted than he was greeted by a gang of fast-closing Tiger defenders who grabbed, wrestled and eventually ripped the football right out of his hands — LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu ending up with the ball at midfield.

LSU went on to force four turnovers in a 47-21 win that catapulted Coach Les Miles' team ahead of Oklahoma and into the No. 1 spot in The Associated Press poll.

Flip the scene last Saturday to Lexington, where Coach Joker Phillips' Kentucky team was turning it over four times in a 48-10 loss to Florida.

Given last week, it isn't hard to pinpoint what will be a huge key when the underdog Cats meet the top-ranked Tigers at 12:21 p.m. EDT Saturday in Baton Rouge.

"We can't be casual with the football," Phillips said.

Guided by defensive coordinator John Chavis, LSU is first in the SEC and fourth in the nation in turnover margin with plus-eight through four games. The opportunistic Tigers have collected 11 takeaways through four games.

West Virginia outgained LSU 533-366 but lost the game thanks to losing the football.

On offense, with the help of new quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe, the former Louisville head coach, the Tigers have lost just two fumbles and thrown just one interception.

"The type of offense they run, it's hard to get takeaways," said UK defensive coordinator Rick Minter. "I'm not saying it can't be done, but their style of offense makes it tremendously difficult to do."

Meanwhile, Kentucky is tied for 78th nationally in turnover margin, with nine takeaways compared to 10 giveaways. The Cats have lost four fumbles and thrown six interceptions.

But UK's turnover troubles appear not to be from its style of offense as much as the uncertainty of who's playing in the offense. Injuries have forced personnel moves in the offensive line and at running back. Inconsistencies have caused havoc at receiver.

Kentucky turned over the football three times in its first six possessions against Florida.

Freshman running back Josh Clemons fumbled with 8:18 left in the first quarter. (Florida scored on the next play.) Later in the same quarter, a high Morgan Newton throw ended up in the arms of Florida safety Matt Elam. (Florida scored two plays later.)

Early in the second quarter, Newton was blind-sided while attempting to pass. The loose ball, ruled a fumble, ended up in the arms of Gator Jaye Howard, who walked into the end zone from 2 yards out for a 21-0 Florida lead.

"We can't turn the football over," Phillips said.

Sometimes tense or tentative teams are susceptible to turning over the football. Was that the case against the Gators?

"I don't know," Phillips said. "But we want to make sure that they relax."

To that end, the head coach used the phrase "Let it rip" at the end of Thursday's practice.

"There's going to be some mistakes in this game," Phillips said. "There are no perfect games out there where there are no mistakes. When you've got 22 guys out there at a time, times 70 snaps, there's going to be some mistakes. When a mistake happens, relax, regroup, go play ball. Go try to make up for it."

After all, as 30-point underdogs, the Cats have little to lose.

"That phrase is always used and it could be used in this situation," Phillips said. "Just go down there and play, make sure we continue to improve. We can improve during the game, every snap, and let's just see what happens."

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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