The weather in Knoxville is predicted to be beautiful Saturday.
But it doesn’t mean that Kentucky’s game against Tennessee there will be.
It could be a mess of a game if turnover statistics are any indication this season. Both UK and the Volunteers are among the worst teams in the country taking at care of the football.
UK has 22 turnovers this season (13 fumbles and nine interceptions), which is fourth-worst nationally. With at least three more games to play, the Cats already have as many turnovers as they did all of last season and seven more than in the two seasons before that.
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Tennessee hasn’t fared much better, coughing the ball up 20 times this season, better than only nine other teams (including UK) in the country. Of those 20 mistakes, 16 have come against Southeastern Conference opponents.
Both teams are averaging two or more turnovers a game.
“It's definitely gonna play a factor,” Mark Stoops said Thursday. “It always does, and hopefully we'll protect the football a little bit better.”
The Cats coach said he was pleased in the game before, a last-second loss to Georgia at Commonwealth Stadium, that Kentucky was able to force three fumbles. UK has only 12 takeaways this season, five fumble recoveries and seven interceptions.
“Sometimes the ball's on the ground, you get it or you don't,” Stoops continued. “We were fortunate to get a few breaks this past week. Unfortunately we lost some as well.”
The primary target for both defenses looking to improve their takeaway tally will be the opponent’s quarterback. Both Stephen Johnson and Joshua Dobbs have been prone to mistakes.
Dobbs, Tennessee’s senior signal caller, is responsible for all 11 of the Vols’ interceptions this season and he’s lost three fumbles. In all, Dobbs has coughed the ball up eight times this season, but UT has recovered the others.
“It’s just one of those things, you just have to know,” said UK senior J.D. Harmon of facing a turnover-prone QB. “In tight coverages, he may throw a bad ball, but you can’t just bank on that.
“We’ve watched games, film on him. He’s made some good throws. … It’s up to us to have tight coverage and compete at a high level to make sure we stop the completions.”
Harmon is one of three different UK defenders with at least two interceptions this season, but the Cats have just two in conference play.
On Tennessee’s side, the defense that will be coming for Johnson is led in nearly every way by defensive end Derek Barnett, whom Stoops called “a difference maker” with his SEC-leading 14.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks. Barnett also is just three sacks shy of tying Reggie White’s Tennessee record.
Barnett has seven quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, two pass breakups and an interception for good measure, which all could be a problem for UK’s turnover-prone offense.
“Blocking him is a real issue,” Stoops said of Barnett. “He’s a guy that has relentless effort and ability to create pressure without blitzing. He’s a guy that can get to the quarterback at any moment.”
Johnson, who has thrown four interceptions this season, has fumbled five times (nine total, five lost).
Dobbs the double threat
While Dobbs has struggled at times this season, the senior has had a ton of success against the Cats in his three previous starts against them.
Against UK, Dobbs is averaging 243 yards through the air with seven touchdowns and two interceptions, connecting on 64.5 percent of his pass attempts.
But he’s also torched Kentucky with a combined 24 carries for 151 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, with long runs including one for 40 yards and another for 28.
While containing a mobile quarterback has been a challenge for UK in the past, Stoops said he’s felt better about how the Cats have done this season.
“It's just great team defense and everybody doing their job,” he said. “If everybody's doing their job and you're keeping the lanes as good as you can against running quarterbacks, at least you limit it some. He makes plays. He hurts everybody with his legs.”
Of course, Kentucky and Johnson have that ability as well this season, Stoops noted.
‘Wake up with our hair on fire’
Before the Missouri win, Kentucky had its share of problems on the road and Stoops worried aloud about the team getting up for an early kickoff against the Tigers two weeks ago.
But the Cats said they plan to do some of the things that got them up for the Missouri game before this game at Neyland Stadium.
“We were in the hotel just hyped up, something I’ve never felt before with a team,” middle linebacker Courtney Love said. “We want to keep feeling that every week.”
Harmon, the senior corner, was one of the reasons the players were hyped up. He and a few teammates ran through the hallways that morning banging on doors, urging everyone to get up and moving.
“We had to wake up with our hair on fire,” Harmon said. “That noon game comes quick. … Just gotta do what you’ve got to do to get everyone ready to go.”
Freshman running back Benny Snell said players fed off each other’s energy.
“Everybody was in the hallway jacked up, ready to play,” he said. “It’s going to be another one of those games where everyone is ready.”
News and notes
Tennessee has won four in a row (all by double digits) in the rivalry and 30 of the last 31 meetings. … The Cats haven’t won a game in Knoxville since 1984.
▪ Both of UK’s offensive coordinators are returning to Tennessee after coaching there. Eddie Gran coached UT running backs and special teams in 2009. Darin Hinshaw coached the Vols from 2010 through 2012 serving as both a quarterbacks coach and a wide receivers coach.
▪ Senior running back Jojo Kemp could be back to help carry the running back load for UK. A broken hand has forced him to sit out the last two games. Gran seemed pleased with Kemp’s progress and said he’d been able to carry the ball and take direct snaps out of he wildcat formation this week despite a cast on his hand.
Several players missed some practice this week, but Stoops didn’t offer any specifics. “Hopefully they’ll be at full strength on Saturday,” he said. “I think everybody’s banged up pretty good at this time of the year. We’re in relatively good health.”
UK scores, schedule
(Home games in capital letters)
Sept. 3: SOUTHERN MISS (L, 44-35)
Sept. 10: At Florida (L, 45-7)
Sept. 17: NEW MEXICO ST. (W, 62-42)
Sept. 24: SOUTH CAROLINA (W, 17-10)
Oct. 1: At Alabama (L, 34-6)
Oct. 8: VANDERBILT (W, 20-13)
Oct. 22: MISSISSIPPI STATE (W, 40-38)
Oct. 29: At Missouri (W, 35-21)
Nov. 5: GEORGIA (L, 27-24)
Nov. 12: At Tennessee, Noon
Nov. 19: AUSTIN PEAY, 4:30 p.m.
Nov. 26: At Louisville
Kentucky at Tennessee, noon
South Carolina at Florida, noon
Miss. State at Alabama, noon
Auburn at Georgia, 3:30
Vanderbilt at Missouri, 3:30
LSU at Arkansas, 7
Ole Miss at Texas A&M, 7:30