Early this season, Kentucky football lived off turnovers. Forced fumbles. Interceptions. Located way down low in the turnover margin chart last season, Mark Stoops’ Cats started 2017 on a mission for a complete and total turnover turnaround.
Then, just like that, the supply chain dried up. In a blowout loss at Mississippi State, Kentucky failed to turn the Bulldogs over. In a last-minute win over Tennessee, Kentucky failed to turn the Volunteers over. In last week’s heartbreaking loss to Ole Miss, once again Stoops and Company failed to the turn the Rebels over.
“We needed those,” said junior defensive end Denzil Ware.
Saturday in Music City, the dam finally broke. On Vanderbilt’s second possession, Adrian Middleton deflected Commodores quarterback Kyle Shurmur’s pass out of the air and Denzil Ware snatched it for UK’s first interception since the Eastern Michigan game on Sept. 30. Second quarter, Derrick Baity played the ball in the air perfectly for UK’s second pick. Next series, safety Mike Edwards made it a first-half hat trick.
When Jordan Griffin closed the door on the Commodores with a fourth-quarter pick, Kentucky had a season-high four interceptions — Shurmur had thrown just three interceptions all the season — on the way to a 44-21 spanking of Vanderbilt at Vanderbilt Stadium.
“It was really important,” said Stoops afterward. “We were frustrated because we hadn’t gotten many in the past two-and-a-half games or whatever it was. So we stressed it, but I really liked the way we played the football.”
Saturday’s question: Who would be the more motivated team to play good football? At 4-5, Vanderbilt needed two wins in its last three games to earn the six wins needed for the Commodores’ second straight bowl trip. At 6-3, the Cats had already clinched a second straight bowl. They were coming off that 37-34 loss to Ole Miss. At 3-3 in the league, they had been eliminated from SEC East contention.
Instead of giving into the frustration, Kentucky produced its most complete performance of the season. Benny Snell rushed for 116 yards and three touchdowns. Stephen Johnson completed 13 of 17 passes for 195 yards without an interception. Garrett Johnson made six grabs for 76 yards. Lynn Bowden had a 35-yard catch and a 93-yard kickoff return.
Just to show some days the ball bounces your way, Bowden had the ball knocked out from behind on his catch-and-run off a bubble screen. The football bounced 21 yards all the way to the Vanderbilt 2-yard line where at the bottom of a scrum teammates Charles Walker and Kayaune Ross were cradling the football.
“I was praising them, man,” said Bowden. “Praising them.”
Over on the defensive side, the UK secondary had been hearing anything but praise. The Cats entered Saturday last in the SEC in passing yards allowed per game and pass efficiency defense. It was a completely different story Saturday. Where teams like Missouri and Ole Miss used an up-tempo, quick-pass offense with short quarterback dropbacks to negate Kentucky’s pass rush, Vanderbilt used a more traditional approach which played more to UK’s strength.
“The pass rush is always a big factor,” Stoops said.
“The rush compliments the coverage and the coverage compliments the rush,” said Ware, who recorded two of UK’s five sacks. “That’s exactly what happened tonight.”
On the back end, the embattled secondary had to capitalize. Stoops had criticized the group for not making competitive plays at Mississippi State. He had admitted there were too many coverage busts against Tennessee and Ole Miss.
“The challenge was brought to us by Coach Stoops,” Baity said Saturday. “He just said, ‘We need one. We need one.’ It just felt so good. Now we’re getting our confidence back at the right time.”
We’ll see next week in Athens where UK will play a Georgia team surely smarting from the unexpected 40-17 smackdown the Bulldogs took at Auburn on Saturday. If Kentucky has any chance of pulling an upset between the hedges, the Cats will have to create some turnovers.
After turning the turnover narrative around Saturday, the Cats proved they can.
Kentucky at Georgia
3:30 p.m. Saturday (CBS-27)
Kentucky football 2017