Cats know they have a lot to work on ahead of home opener

jsmith3@herald-leader.comSeptember 3, 2012 

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

Joker Phillips emphasized this simple point in his post-game news conference after Kentucky's loss at Louisville on Sunday: "We're better than that."

The head coach used the phrase 12 times in 11 minutes in his meeting with the media. It's likely to be a phrase he'll be saying to his team hundreds of times in this short week leading up to Saturday's home opener against Kent State.

The coach said he imagines that after UK's poor performance against the Cardinals, the Golden Flashes are salivating to play at Commonwealth Stadium.

"Kent State's probably looking at us thinking they have an opportunity to beat a BCS team," Phillips said. "They're probably saying that. I'm sure they're up there saying that."

The "we're better than that" sentiment echoed through his assessment of the team, including an improved offense and a more active special-teams unit.

But the phrase was used many, many times when discussing the defense, which gave up a whopping 466 yards of offense, including 219 yards on the ground. The Cardinals moved the ball at will against the UK defensive line, which was considered a strength for the Cats going into this season.

"One of our goals was we had to win up front and we didn't win up front," Phillips said. "You can't allow a team to rush for 216 yards and say you won the physical battle up front. We have to get better."

The Cardinals averaged 6.5 yards per play and had two rushers go for more than 100 yards. Louisville converted on half of its 12 third-down tries and went 4-for-4 in the red zone. Louisville's offense won the time-of-possession battle by more than 12 minutes.

"It really couldn't have gone much worse for us," UK defensive coordinator Rick Minter said.

"There were too many gaping, gashing holes in the defense," he continued. "We've got to find out exactly what happened and eliminate those problems. ... If you can't stop the run, you can't win."

The good news for UK's defense is it will have a chance to regroup. It will face an offense this weekend that was among the worst in the nation last season. The Golden Flashes, who return nine starters on offense, were second from the bottom in yards per game (253.5) and 114th out of 120 in scoring (17.1 points per game).

Kentucky's offense, which sat in the bottom of the nation with Kent State last season, seemed to find itself on Sunday, getting 373 yards, including 280 passing yards from quarterback Maxwell Smith.

But Smith, and his senior center Matt Smith, both said they understood what the UK defense is going through. They struggled as a unit last season and want to do what they can to help lift up their defensive counterparts.

It starts with senior leadership, Matt Smith said.

"Some of the seniors now realize how vocal we need to be and how encouraging we need to be no matter what the score ends up being or how much we get down," he said. "We have to be encouraging to each other on both sides of the ball."

He said he'll be pushing the defense to get better at practice Tuesday.

"We can't let guys walk around with their heads hanging because of what happened," he said. "It's a long season and we have a lot of games left to turn this thing around."

When Maxwell Smith was told about his head coach's "we're better than that" mantra, the sophomore quarterback nodded his head. He was asked what he's seen in fall camp to make him believe that Kentucky is better than the 32-14 loss to Louisville.

He offered up a laundry list on both sides of the ball.

"I know I'll make better decisions in terms of who should get the ball on certain plays," he said. "I know our defense is going to stop the run better. I know our defense is going to stop the pass better. I know our defense is going to work harder than they ever have."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com

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