The Kentucky football team's final open date is coming at the latest available time, a week before the regular-season finale at Tennessee.
But Coach Rich Brooks has no problem with the timing. The Wildcats could definitely use some physical and emotional healing after two consecutive conference losses at home.
Brooks said that the Wildcats will be without two defensive regulars for the Tennessee game. Starting free safety Marcus McClinton is out with a severe laceration on his quadriceps, while backup defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin will miss the game with a high ankle sprain.
Also, it will give defensive tackle Myron Pryor and middle linebacker Micah Johnson some extra rest after they've battled through high ankle sprains for much of the season. Brooks also thinks the bye will benefit freshman Randall Cobb, who's carried a heavy load as the quarterback and punt returner.
"It probably comes at a pretty good time for us," Brooks said. "We've got guys at less than 100 percent and guys still playing on high ankle sprains. (Pryor and Johnson) could use the down time to get some quickness and explosion back. Randall Cobb's got a little bit of a sore body. He could use a little healing as well. And, obviously, there are things we need to focus on and get better at."
A big key to how the Wildcats close the season will be whether Brooks and defensive coordinator Steve Brown can get the defense back on track. After leading the nation in scoring average and ranking at the top of the SEC in the first half of the season, the UK defense has tailed off badly of late. Brooks said the "avalanche" started with a 63-5 loss at Florida, a game where Johnson and Pryor's ankle injuries were fresh and the Cats dug themselves a 14-0 hole thanks to two blocked punts deep in their own territory.
Kentucky bounced back somewhat in a 14-13 win at Mississippi State the following week, but then gave up 520 yards in a 42-38 loss to Georgia. Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson burned the Wildcat defense for 273 yards of total offense and three passing TDs in the Commodores 31-24 win on Saturday night.
"Overall, I'm not pleased with the defensive effort in last several games, obviously," Brooks said. "We have started to get our nose in the wrong gaps from not being focused, and when we lose focus, everybody starts trying to do something that they're not supposed to do and play somebody else's gap. Those are things we didn't do early in the season."
Both games saw the Kentucky defense come out flat and spot its opponent early 14-0 leads, but Brooks said the most disappointing thing was how his team responded in crisis situations. Brooks pointed to UK's two roughing-the-punter penalties and a fourth-quarter roughing-the-passer penalty that kept Vanderbilt drives alive as perfect examples.
Brooks, after watching film, said the officials made the right call on both of the roughing-the-punter penalties and said the roughing-the-passer call on Micah Johnson was close. He noted, however, that Vanderbilt scored on two of those drives. After Johnson's late hit on Nickson negated a David Jones interception, Nickson ran 34 yards to the UK 4-yard line on the next play. Jared Hawkins' 4-yard run two plays later gave the Commodores a 31-17 lead.
"Once (the penalties) happened, our defense gave in to it and they went through us and scored pretty easily," Brooks said. "We didn't refocus and get back to playing defense the way we had the rest of the second half. How we handled adversity and our own mistakes was disappointing. We did not handle adversity well."
The Vandy loss dropped UK to 6-5 overall and 2-5 in the SEC. Kentucky is already bowl-eligible and is all but a lock to make it to the post-season for three straight years for the first time since 1949-51. But there still will be plenty at stake for the Cats in Knoxville. Not only will they be trying to end the nation's longest consecutive losing streak to one team at 23, UK will also be fighting to stay out of last place in the SEC East.
Brooks admitted to being concerned about how his team will bounce back.
"I'm very concerned about it," Brooks said. "We can still the match the record of the last two years in the regular season, and if we're able to do that it will be significant. A lot of fans will expect us to beat Tennessee, but they still have good players and are trying to find some answers as well. We've just got to try and get it right and get a win and finish the regular season on a good note."