To put the deterioration of the Kentucky run defense in perspective, the Cats gave up more yards in one game at Georgia than they allowed in their first five games of the season combined.
In the defense’s final two games against the Bulldogs and Louisville, UK allowed 727 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 87 rushing attempts.
In the nearly four weeks between that loss to the Cardinals and a trip to the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Kentucky’s defensive coaches have done plenty of evaluation.
How did the Cats go from sound ground control to the struggles at the end of the season?
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“No. 1, we’ve got to tackle,” defensive coordinator Matt House said. “We missed a ton of tackles.”
So much of UK’s struggles down the stretch also involved the higher level of opponent played, Coach Mark Stoops said of Louisville and Georgia, both in the top 15 nationally in rushing.
There were some physical limitations of the UK defense down the stretch, too.
“Some of it is the wear and tear that it takes to play in the SEC and the teams that we play and some of the quality players we played down the stretch,” Stoops said when asked about the statistical discrepancies later in the season.
Kentucky’s players needed the time a bowl game allows to heal up and return to early-season form, the coach said.
“We need to get some of our guys physically back stronger,” he said. “We need to gain some weight back and get healed up and be able to hit that weight room and be physically in a good position to play this game,” he said. “I think that’s a big piece of it.”
The Cats will find out if they got their physical edge back on Friday against No. 20 Northwestern (9-3), which boasts one of the top running backs in the Big Ten.
Senior Justin Jackson finished the regular season No. 32 nationally and third in the conference in rushing yards per game at 96.2, running for 1,154 yards and nine touchdowns.
Jackson, who had an impressive bowl game last season rushing for 224 yards and three touchdowns, is one of only six players in Big Ten history to run for more than 5,000 career yards.
“He runs really hard,” UK’s defensive coordinator said. “You’re not a four-time 1,000-yard rusher without being really talented. … He’s a really patient runner. It will be a challenge.”
Northwestern’s entire scheme, which he said was comparable to UK foes like Southern Miss, Tennessee and Missouri, will be a challenge for the Cats’ defense, which finished the regular season No. 90 nationally in total defense (425.7 yards per game).
“They do a really good job of execution,” House said of Northwestern’s rushing offense, which is No. 70 in the country on the ground at 160.9 yards per game with 28 rushing touchdowns.
“The back’s a tremendous player, in the top 10 in the Big Ten in all-time rushing yardage and they do a really good job of executing.”
That means Kentucky (7-5) will have to do a better job executing, too.
“We can’t be out of gaps, that’s something that was huge” in recent losses, UK senior linebacker Courtney Love said. “We can’t just be focused on just one thing; we have to see everything. As a defense you have to be able to hustle to the ball and be able to play with grit and a good mentality and be able to focus when things get tough.”
Love loves the idea of facing a team that runs it as often as Northwestern at more than 40 times a game, some 21 per game to Jackson.
“When teams run the ball, I take it personal,” said Love, second on the team in tackles with 82. “That’s football. That’s man-on-man and winning your one-on-one.
“‘We’re going to run the ball and are you going to stop us?’ That’s the challenge. Our defense will be ready to face that challenge.”
But will it be able to revert to the run defense that it once was?
“We’ll see. We’ll see,” Stoops said Tuesday. “We’ll get a good test in this game and hopefully we’ll get back like we did at times this year.”
▪ Junior linebacker Denzil Ware, who will sit out the bowl after an unspecified violation of team rules, was back practicing with his UK teammates Wednesday at Vanderbilt’s indoor practice facility.
Music City Bowl
Kentucky vs. Northwestern
When: 4:30 p.m. EST Friday
Where: Nissan Stadium in Nashville
Records: Kentucky 7-5, Northwestern 9-3