Kentucky's defensive players are feeling pretty good about themselves these days, and with good reason.
They haven't allowed a touchdown in eight quarters and rank in the nation's top 10 in several categories.
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But the Wildcats "D" will meet its Kryptonite Saturday night when it faces Middle Tennessee and its spread offense.
Teams that run the spread and have a quarterback who can pick up yards downfield have caused the Wildcats grief recently. Urban Meyer, Tim Tebow and Florida immediately come to mind, but the Cats' struggles with the spread haven't been limited to the Gators' version of it.
In fact, a pair of mid-major programs similar to Middle Tennessee came to Commonwealth Stadium in 2006 and used the spread to nearly knock off the Cats.
Led by quarterback Dan LeFevour, Central Michigan sliced and diced its way through the Wildcats for 558 yards in a 45-36 loss, and later that year Louisiana-Monroe ran up 501 yards only to come up on the short end of a 42-40 shootout.
And even though Kentucky has beaten Vanderbilt four straight times, the Commodores have been able to spread the Cats out and compile more than 1,000 yards against UK the past two seasons.
The Kentucky players and coaches are well aware of the albatross of the spread that is around their necks. When asked about those struggles, junior safety Ashton Cobb snickered and said, "As our history says, we've had trouble with the spread offense. But I think we're ready for it."
When a reporter brought up UK's past problems with the spread, defensive coordinator Steve Brown immediately cut them off.
"We're not going to talk about history," he said.
What makes the spread so difficult to defend is the number of options the quarterback has. The QB can go with a straight dive up the middle, execute a play-fake and run the option, run a quarterback draw, or run a series of play-fakes before dropping back to pass.
Since UK runs a pro-style offense, the Wildcats defense doesn't get many looks at the spread in practice.
"It's hard to simulate when you're not doing that much of it yourself," UK Coach Rich Brooks said. "The speed and misdirection of it segments your defense. You don't get to rally and run to the ball. It requires a little more thinking before you react."
The UK players say the key to defending the spread is a disciplined, gap-control approach. To get ready for the spread, the Wildcats defense practiced without a ball against the scout-team offense at times this week.
"You can't watch the ball or the quarterback," Cobb said. "Coach Brown always says that if you read your keys, it will set you free."
"I try not to even look at the football," defensive end Jeremy Jarmon said. "Once you look where the ball is, you're not even doing your job."
Jarmon knows firsthand the damage that can come with an undisciplined approach to the spread, as his overpursuit against Vandy in 2006 allowed Sean Walker to score on a 35-yard reverse.
"The wide receiver came back across and tossed the ball," Jarmon said. "I did a 180 and turned my body completely around, but by that time it was a touchdown. I came back to the sideline to Coach Brooks waving that finger at me to get yelled at."
The Middle Tennessee offense is also chomping at the bit to test a UK defense whose reputation is growing rapidly. Middle Tennessee quarterback Joe Craddock told the Murfreesboro (Tenn.) Daily News Journal this week that he's motivated to become the first team to score a touchdown on the Kentucky defense this season.
"It makes me want to prepare myself even more, practice harder and get our offense going," Craddock said. "I want to lead them in the right direction so that we can put up points that no one has put up yet."
Craddock's statement made its way to the UK camp this week.
"When I heard about the comment, I kind of laughed at it," Jarmon said. "But I would hope they would have that mentality. We're anxious to try and keep a team out of the end zone for the third straight game. I think that says a lot of our defense for their quarterback to come and say he's anxious and excited to try and score on us."
Jarmon said that this isn't the same old Kentucky that used to get shredded by the spread.
"It's a new defense," he said. "We're playing with a lot of attitude and a lot of passion, and they'll see what Kentucky defense is all about."