If you wanted to write a book about the University of Kentucky defense the past two weeks, an appropriate title might be From Swiss Cheese to the Steel Curtain.
In the first half of the Auburn and South Carolina games, the Wildcats gave up 59 points and 703 yards total and trailed 31-17 to the Tigers and 28-10 to the Gamecocks.
But the UK defense underwent a shocking metamorphosis in the second half of both games. After a 344-yard first half, Auburn mustered just 177 and a pair of field goals in the second half. And the Wildcats defense pitched a shutout on South Carolina, limiting the Gamecocks to 103 yards after halftime.
The thing is, nobody can explain the difference between the two halves. Not head coach Joker Phillips, not defensive coordinator Steve Brown, not even the players.
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"Each game is an adventure," Brown said. "It's really hard to put your finger on it."
"I don't know what it is," defensive end Ricky Lumpkin said. "We come out in the pre-game and everybody's excited. There's no lack of energy. I get a great feeling from the team starting the game, and then next thing you know we're down 14 points. It's kind of like the old Kentucky team, which we're not."
UK's second-half transformation didn't go unnoticed by Georgia Coach Mark Richt, who will bring his team into Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night.
"We had great interest in watching that game because they (Kentucky) were down, South Carolina took over, and then at halftime, something changed, and they got after it," Richt said. "They made plays on defense, on offense and just did it. They made big plays in crunch time."
"I have some theories, but I can't really put my arms around it," junior linebacker Danny Trevathan said.
The players and coaches universally stated that there weren't any drastic scheme changes from the first to second half.
But Brown did admit to one adjustment.
Fans have criticized Brown for not blitzing enough. He called plenty of different blitz packages in the first half against South Carolina, and that resulted in defensive end Taylor Wyndham isolated in coverage on the perimeter against South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore on a couple of occasions. South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia missed Lattimore the first time but later found him for an easy 47-yard touchdown.
Brown scaled back the pressure in the second half and UK was more sound.
"I continue to reiterate that in our first game against Louisville, they blitzed on every play and our offense did a great job of attacking them," Brown said. "In the second half, they backed off a little bit and got back in the game. Yes, we want to be aggressive and get pressure on the quarterback and pressure the run. But it's more about being aggressive than it is calling pressure."
Trevathan has been playing well all year, but other Wildcats are starting to come on. While Phillips wants safety Winston Guy to make more tackles closer to the line of scrimmage, Guy has interceptions in back-to-back games after going the first 31 games of his career without one.
The game-clinching play against South Carolina was made by a pair of reserve cornerbacks. Sophomore Cartier Rice deflected Garcia's pass in the end zone intended for Lamar Scruggs, and Anthony Mosley brought in the interception.
"We've still got young guys still learning how to play and feeling their way through, and once they get comfortable, they can just go and play aggressively whether we call pressure or not," Brown said.
Unlike the Auburn game, the Wildcats received some breaks against South Carolina. Lattimore, who had 204 yards of total offense in the first half, went down early in the third period with an ankle injury and did not return.
Auburn fumbled four times against the Cats but UK was unable to recover any of them. The Kentucky defense got four turnovers from the Gamecocks while not committing any themselves.
Trevathan said that the Wildcats have been coming out of the gate on their heels and letting the opposing offense dictate the tempo instead of dictating it themselves.
"I think we've been waiting to attack and trying to see what the offenses are doing," Trevathan said. "We've got to get in attack mode in the first half and show them what we're bringing to the table."
Once the defense finally started making plays, it became contagious. Phillips said a key in the South Carolina game came late in the second quarter when the Gamecocks had the ball and were looking for a score that could have put them up 35-10 at intermission. Trevathan hit Ace Sanders at the South Carolina 44 after a 24-yard completion, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Mosley with 1:19 left in the half.
"I think that really gave us some momentum going into halftime," Phillips said. "If they score there, who knows? Once (the defense) made a play, their body language did change in my opinion. It's like piranhas. Once you smell blood, everybody wants some. Somebody made a big play, and everybody wanted to make a play."
And once the defense got a rhythm going, Trevathan said the players were more vocal in helping each other out and correcting one another's mistakes.
Phillips seems open to any suggestions to get that kind of play from the get-go.
"We'll probably just try to convince them this is the second half," he said. "We don't stretch much in the second half. Maybe we shouldn't stretch. We usually eat orange slices. Maybe we'll do that at the beginning of the game instead of at halftime. Although those Snickers that we eat also, they're a little heavy. I don't know if I want them to eat those before the game."
Locke will probably miss Georgia game
UK junior tailback Derrick Locke has not made significant progress from a stinger that kept him out against South Carolina, and he probably will sit out Saturday's game against Georgia, Phillips said.