The kind way to assess how the Kentucky football team has opened games recently would be to say that the Wildcats might need a bit of a kick start.
Or to put it more bluntly, the Cats might need a swift kick in the pants before the opening kickoff.
Rich Brooks' squad might as well have brought blankets with them to Commonwealth Stadium for the opening minutes of the Georgia and Vanderbilt games, because it looked like they were napping.
Georgia needed just 11 plays to take a 14-0 lead, and UK also spotted Vandy a two-touchdown first-quarter cushion. The Cats eventually woke up in the final three quarters only to come up short in both games.
Next comes the regular-season finale against Tennessee on Saturday in Knoxville.
"What I've been trying to get these guys to understand is that we haven't played 60 minutes all year long," Brooks said. "We've had very good spurts on offense and defense and the kicking game, but 60 minutes hasn't been in our equation all year, and that's what it's going to take to win this game, a 60-minute commitment of playing good football."
The first quarter has been a problem all year for the Cats, as they've been outscored 98-31. The 98 points allowed is 46 more than their total allowed in any other quarter (52 in the second), and the 31 points scored is 34 points fewer than in any other quarter(65 in the third).
UK's 11 game-opening drives this season have netted a grand total of three points, courtesy of a 45-yard Ryan Tydlacka field goal against Western Kentucky.
Getting out of the gate quickly will take on added significance at Tennessee. The Volunteers are one of the few teams worse at starting games than UK: They haven't scored on an opening drive all season.
"The thing we've got to do is come out fast and get a TD in our first drive," UK offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said. "That would be something different. I think the team that starts out the fastest will win this game."
While Tennessee didn't score in the first quarter against Vanderbilt last week, it came out and set the tone with a punishing running game. That led to a 20-point second-quarter outburst that essentially sealed the game. The Vols ran for 222 yards while attempting just nine passes. UT will be able to stick to its game plan again if Kentucky sleepwalks early.
"I think it's critical that we get on the board earlier than we have in recent games," Brooks said. "Our slow starts have put us in a catch-up position, which you don't want to be in against the Tennessee defense. If we get off to a slow start, it plays into their hands because of their physical nature. With their (offensive) line and running backs, they make up their mind to run it right at you."
To their credit, the Wildcats still managed to give themselves a chance to win the Georgia and Vandy games despite falling behind early. But unlike last year, when a loaded offense engineered comeback wins against Louisville, Arkansas and LSU, the 2008 Cats don't have the firepower to consistently come from behind after spotting teams big leads.
"The encouraging thing is the past two games we've gotten behind 14-0 and we've been able to get back in the game and get in position to where we had a chance," Brooks said. "Based on some of our earlier efforts, if we fell behind 14-0 you basically thought it was over. This team has the resiliency and the belief that we can come back, we just don't have all the weapons that we've possessed in the last two years to come back."
Don't be surprised to see Kentucky come out with a similar blueprint to Tennessee and rely heavily on the run. The ground game was the main reason UK got back in the Georgia game, as the Cats piled up 226 rushing yards. Kentucky is 5-1 when it outrushes its opponent, but last week against Vanderbilt, The Cats had more pass attempts (26) than runs (24). Junior tailback Alfonso Smith said that needs to change.
"I think we've got to come out and run the ball, and run it early," Smith said. "The times our offense gets going, it's because we establish the run. I know last week I only got one carry and Tony (Dixon) only got a few carries. We need to run the ball and stick with it. If we do that, I think we can get off to a good start and have a good chance to win the game."
Cat Walk in Knoxville
Fans wishing to participate in the "Cat Walk" — cheering the team when the Wildcats enter the stadium — should gather near Gate 10 of Neyland Stadium on Saturday at 4:15 p.m.