It’s a good news, bad news situation for Kentucky’s defense.
Only once this season has the Cats run defense allowed an opponent to go for more than 20 yards on a single play. The only other team that has managed that feat after four games is Alabama.
But the pass defense still has some things to figure out. There have been some communication breakdowns. It has allowed 14 completions for 20-plus yards, among the worst in the Southeastern Conference.
Opponents are completing 63.9 percent of their passes against UK and the 269.5 yards the Cats are allowing each game also are fairly deep in the SEC cellar.
Eastern Michigan and quarterback Brogan Roback coming to Kroger Field on Saturday likely means Kentucky’s pass defense will get lots of opportunities to improve those numbers.
“Really good player. Just really talented,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said of Roback, who is averaging 266 yards per game with two touchdowns and two interceptions in three starts.
“Really trusts his arm. Can make all the throws. I was very impressed.”
Roback has the attention of Kentucky’s secondary this week.
“This kid, he throws back-shoulder fades as good as anybody,” UK defensive coordinator Matt House said. “We worked it all week. He really gets the ball out fast.”
The back-shoulder fade, which is often like an intentionally underthrown pass, can catch a defensive back off guard because he might not get his head around in time to even see it happen. That’s meant hundreds of balls lofted through the air this week at the practice fields by the Cats’ backup quarterbacks.
Defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale has been peppering his position group with proper technique, how to handle it and how to get in proper position to make a play on the ball.
“Sometimes I shorten the drill and just make it a point-of-attack drill where they’re finding the man, finding the drill and the ball’s right there on them, so trying to make it harder,” he explained.
The secondary knows what it’s up against and has been playing with an edge all week, safety Darius West said.
“They were throwing it at us a lot,” the junior said Wednesday. “We were getting plenty of reps at it. We’ve just got to be able to play the ball. It’s a tough defense, though.”
For his career, Roback has thrown for 6,561 yards and 40 touchdowns, third all-time in Eastern Michigan history. His 569 completions are No. 4 in the record books.
The senior, who also can pooch punt and has landed two that he stuck inside the 20-yard line, got banged up near the end of a 27-20 two-overtime loss to Ohio last week.
But he kept playing.
“You could tell how tough he is,” Stoops said of Roback. “He came in and gutted it out and played and put his team in a position to win. You could tell how sore his arm was. Obviously he’s a tough competitor.”
Avoiding the hangover
Saturday’s opponent is Eastern Michigan, but one of the primary goals for Kentucky is not to let Florida beat it again this weekend.
The Cats’ coaches and players can choose to let a painful, one-point loss in front of a sellout crowd linger like a dark cloud over Kroger Field or they can find a way to use it as motivation.
As best quarterback Stephen Johnson can tell, the players are going with the latter.
“Going back and watching the film Monday, watching the good things we did, watching the bad things we did, knowing we had a chance to win that game really set fire underneath our butts,” said Johnson, who called Tuesday’s practice one of UK’s best since he arrived last year.
The maturity of this team, which Stoops has been touting since the spring, will have to guide the players through the disappointment of the loss and into the next few weeks.
The coach said he saw frustration followed by leadership from a large collection of players.
“I saw the guys regroup and become player-led,” he said. “The leadership came from the players. That’s great to see. That’s growth.”
Stoops also talked about making this week of practice less about routine and more about commitment to finishing the season strong.
“Today I saw a commitment,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “So, we’ve got a chance to get better each week, and that’s what we’ve done.”
News and notes
Big special teams plays have become a specialty for wide receiver Charles Moushey, whose specialty appears to be downing Matt Panton punts inside the 5-yard line.
The wide receiver and former pole-vaulter for the UK track and field team has found his niche.
“He is super fast, and he’s taking great pride in it,” Stoops said of the senior from Westerville, Ohio. “That’s the great thing about something we constantly talk about: Not seeing too much, doing your job. He embraces that. He embraces his role on the team and he’s a difference-maker. He’s had a big impact. He takes great pride in what he’s doing.”
Seeing Moushey become a difference-maker brings a smile to the face of another Charles, who also prides himself on big special teams plays.
“He works so hard day in and day out that they couldn’t keep him off the field,” Charles Walker said of Moushey. “If he had the smallest chance at practice to do something, he’ll do it. He’s just an awesome guy with an awesome work ethic and I’m just so happy he’s gotten the chance he has.”
▪ The high-snap issue in the first few games might lead to a new face getting some playing time this week at center — Drake Jackson.
“He’s had a couple really solid weeks of practice the past two weeks, and so I think we’ll get him in the rotation at some point,” Stoops said of the redshirt freshman from Woodford County.
The UK centers and quarterback worked extra on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to get in some extra snaps and work out the kinks.
▪ While much attention has been paid to Eastern Michigan’s quarterback, the Eagles’ defense could present problems for the Cats as well. The team has five interceptions, No. 16 nationally and it has forced two fumbles for a plus-three turnover margin. Leading the way on that is sophomore safety Brody Hoying, who has at least one turnover in each of the first three games. Hoying had a pick in each of the first two games and forced two fumbles last weekend versus Ohio.
“They know what they’re doing; they know what they do,” Stoops said of the Eagles. “They do it well. They don’t try to be too cute on either side of the ball. They just play good, sound, fundamental football and their players play really hard.”
2017 UK football schedule
Home games in capital letters. Times are p.m.
Sept. 2: at Southern Miss (W, 24-17)
Sept. 9: EASTERN KENTUCKY (W, 27-16)
Sept. 16: at South Carolina (W, 23-13)
Sept. 23: FLORIDA, 7:30 (L, 28-27)
Sept. 30: EASTERN MICHIGAN, 4 (SEC)
Oct. 7: MISSOURI, 7:30 (SEC)
Oct. 21: at Mississippi St.
Oct. 28: TENNESSEE
Nov. 4: OLE MISS
Nov. 11: at Vanderbilt
Nov. 18: at Georgia
Nov. 25: LOUISVILLE