After two seasons of playing second fiddle to a star-studded offense, 2008 was supposed to be the year that the University of Kentucky defense stepped up and carried the torch.
The overall numbers look good. UK was 118th in total defense two years ago, improved to 67th last season and is 41st going into Saturday's regular-season finale at Tennessee. The Wildcats have also gone from 99th to 80th to 33rd in scoring defense.
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But after looking dominant early in the season, the UK 'D' has tailed off significantly in the past month.
The tailspin started with a 63-5 humiliation at Florida on Oct. 25. That doesn't look quite as bad when you consider two factors: The Wildcats dug themselves an early hole by getting punts blocked deep in their own territory on their first two possessions, and the Gators have been putting up big numbers on everybody.
But after a solid showing in a 14-13 win at Mississippi State, the Wildcats' defense was ripped for a season-high 520 yards in a 42-38 loss to Georgia. The following week, the UK defense figured to get back on track facing a Vanderbilt team that hadn't scored more than two touchdowns in its previous five games. But the Commodores scored easily on their first two drives, built a 24-7 halftime lead, and hung on for a 31-24 win.
Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks seemed to take the glass half-full approach when asked to sum up his 2008 defense.
"This defense is still clearly better than any we have had since we've been here," Brooks said. "It's been a little disappointing of late. We've been trying to mesh all of this together and get the most out of what we can this season, and while the defense has come up short of where we need it to be, the good news is it hasn't been awful."
Several factors have contributed to the slide, including:
1. Better competition. The Wildcats were among the nation's leaders in several defensive categories the first month of the season, but those numbers were compiled against the likes of Norfolk State, Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky. Alabama was UK's first quality opponent, and Crimson Tide running back Glen Coffee tore the Cats for 218 yards. Several other marquee players have had big games against the Cats, including Arkansas' Michael Smith (192 rushing yards), Florida's Tim Tebow (228 total yards, four TDs) and the Georgia trio of Matthew Stafford (376 passing yards, three TDs), Knowshon Moreno (123 rushing yards, three TDs) and Mohamed Massaquoi (191 receiving yards). Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson also went off on UK, compiling 273 yards of offense with three touchdown passes.
"Playing in the SEC has something to do with (the slide)," Brooks said. "We got Nickson's best game, Stafford's best game, and we got a great game from Florida in all facets."
2. Injuries. Several key performers have been banged up. Defensive tackle Myron Pryor and linebacker Micah Johnson, who anchor the middle of the defense, have battled high ankle sprains for much of the season, and UK will be without two more starters (defensive end Jeremy Jarmon and free safety Marcus McClinton) against Tennessee.
3. Third-down issues. The UK defense has been known for struggling to get off the field on third down. This year's third-down defense hasn't been terrible, as its 33.5 percent ratio ranks seventh in the league. And while the insertion of Randall Cobb at quarterback has given the offense a spark, Kentucky is one of the worst in the country at converting third downs. Its 30.5 percent ratio ranks last in the SEC. That has left the defense on the field for long stretches and often in poor field position.
"It's tough when you have an offense that has struggled to stay on field and get first downs," Brooks said. "It puts the defense more at risk."
4. Special-teams issues. As mentioned above, Florida converted a pair of blocked punts into two easy touchdowns. South Carolina scored on a blocked field goal and set up another TD with a long kickoff return. And a pair of roughing-the-punter calls kept Vanderbilt drives alive.
"It's such an emotional high to get off the field, and then we're right back on it," defensive coordinator Steve Brown said. "But that's just something we've got to overcome. You can talk until you're blue in the face, but the kids have got to come together and do it."
The Kentucky defensive players say that there's still time to put a positive spin on the 2008 season if they can shut down Tennessee and come up with a big performance in the bowl game.
Tackle Corey Peters said there's even more of a sense of urgency since the much-maligned offense has put up 62 points the last two games.
"Early in the season, a lot of guys on the defense were saying (to the offense), 'Just get us 14 (points); just get us 17 or 21,' " Peters said. "The offense has been improving week-to-week, while the defense has been going backwards. It's been disheartening. What you asked your offense to do at the beginning of the season, they're starting to do that, but we're not at the level that we were at early in the year. We can come out and make a statement these last two games. That's something we need to do."