With the Cats hanging 3-3 at the halfway point, here are four Kentucky football questions heading into the off week:
1. What’s been the difference with the defense?
First three games, Kentucky’s defense was stuck to the field like refrigerator magnets. Last three, the suddenly active Cats have been flying around, pressuring quarterbacks, disrupting receivers, executing key stops on key plays. In Saturday’s 20-13 win over Vanderbilt, the defense did not allow a touchdown.
“We’re showing how dirty we can be,” said defensive end Denzil Ware.
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On Saturday, Mark Stoops downplayed his contribution to the turnaround, but common sense implies the head coach’s more active role has played a part in the improvement. Stoops cut his teeth as a defensive coordinator. He and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot have returned to the relationship they enjoyed as defensive assistants at Florida State.
Eliot credits the players, and ultimately it is all about the players. Two training camp losses sent the Cats scrambling in September. Starting defensive tackle Regie Meant left the team. Starting safety Darius West’s season ended before it began because of a knee injury. Time was needed for the replacements to get valuable repetitions.
2. How can the Cats reverse their turnover trend?
Through six games, Kentucky is currently 122nd out of the 128 FBS teams in turnover margin, averaging a -1.33 per game. The Cats are tied with Tennessee at 124th out of 128 in turnovers lost with 16. Only Kansas (17), Duke (18) and Bowling Green (18) have lost more.
On Kentucky’s first possession of the second half Saturday, star running back Boom Williams dropped the ball on a running play. Vanderbilt’s Taurean Ferguson grabbed the loose ball and raced 22 yards for a touchdown. In the blink of an eye, a 17-3 UK lead became 17-10. It was the second straight week the opposition had executed a scoop-and-score off a Kentucky fumble. Williams didn’t carry the ball the rest of the game.
“We talk about it all the time,” said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, “and we’ll continue to talk about.”
3. Will Stephen Johnson’s passing game improve?
You could basically say the junior college transfer is 3-1 since taking over after starting quarterback Drew Barker left the New Mexico State game after the first series with a back injury. After leading UK to the 62-42 win that day, Johnson started the win over South Carolina, the loss at No. 1 Alabama and the win over Vanderbilt.
The California native has struggled of late, however. He completed just 10 of 24 passes for 49 yards with an interception against Vandy. Many of his throws were either late or off target. One was intercepted and Johnson dodged the bullet on several others.
Gran said it’s merely a matter of Johnson being more accurate. Johnson blamed his footwork. The off week comes at a good time. Expect quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw to focus on his quarterback’s fundamentals and straighten out the kinks.
4. Is there too much negativity about UK football?
“I’ll tell you this: It’s very hard to get something turned when it’s toxic and negative,” Stoops said Saturday. “The criticism, we deserve it sometimes. I sat here and took it and will. When you deserve to be criticized, you take it like a man and move on. But the toxic, negative stuff, it’s very hard to turn a program when people turn that way, turn on the kids and turn on the players.”
Those comments prompted a minor commotion Saturday night. Twitter was upset, but then Twitter is always upset about something. Fans are fans, unhappy unless the team is winning, and even then they’re never completely happy.
But here’s the thing: College athletics programs, professional programs at the college level, are asking more and more from their fans. More money for tickets. More money for (K-fund) donations. More money for parking. More money for concessions. More money for just about everything.
Only stands to reason, fans want more in return.
Kentucky in NCAA statistical rankings
Pass efficiency offense
Third down offense
Pass efficiency defense
Third down defense
Kickoff return defense