UK defense falling short of greatness

John Clay
John Clay

A message to the Kentucky football defense of 1977.

Your legacy is safe.

Take a bow, Art Still. And Mike Siganos, Mike Martin, Jerry Blanton, Dallas Owens, Richard Jaffe, Kelly Kirchbaum. And coordinator Charlie Bailey.

You remain the best Kentucky defense.

This 2008 Kentucky football defense was regarded as the best since your '77 excellence. Early in the year, it was mentioned in your sentence. There were comparisons. There were parallels.

But then the Southeastern Conference season began and we have seen something of a fade route. Alabama rushed for 282 yards. South Carolina threw for 274. Florida put 63 points on The Swamp scoreboard. On Saturday, Georgia cooked the Cats for 520 yards in a 42-38 victory.

The 38 points is the most scored by a Kentucky team in a losing cause in any game not decided by overtime. Ever.

The 520 yards were the most allowed by a defense in a league game this season.

"Lord have mercy," said defensive coordinator Steve Brown. "That's hard for me to fathom."

The Cats have slipped to 38th in the nation in total defense (324.5 yards per game) and 33rd in scoring defense (20.1 points per game). Those aren't bad statistics, but they're not on par with that '77 unit that allowed 235.5 yards and 10.1 points per game.

It certainly wasn't what the Cats envisioned Saturday, when the offense produced five touchdowns, but the defense allowed six.

True, not having star cornerback Trevard Lindley (patella tendinitis) for almost all the second half was a factor. Georgia's receivers are terrific, quick with good hands and great bodies. The Dogs are not the opponent you want to play without your best cover corner.

But the larger truth is that you might have seen this coming. The defense has not been as stout against the run. Alabama's Glen Coffee gained 218 yards on the ground against the Cats. Arkansas' Michael Smith gained 192.

Kentucky did a good job holding Mississippi State's Anthony Dixon to 48 yards on 15 carries a week ago, but Georgia's Knowshon Moreno gained 123 yards on 22 carries on Saturday. Florida held Moreno to 65 yards the week before.

Not that Moreno was a one-man show. Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford (17-for-27 for 376 yards and three touchdowns) posted a phenomenal 216.6 passing rating. Wideout Mohamed Massaquoi caught eight passes for 191 yards, many of those yards after the catch. The most important play of the game was Stafford's 78-yard hookup to Massaquoi in which the Cat secondary took a bad angle and, before it could recover, the Bulldog had barreled all the way to the 7-yard line to set up the game-winning score.

"We didn't play the type of defense we've been playing all year," safety Marcus McClinton said. "And that was the reason for the big plays."

Now the Cats are left with two big games. Both are winnable. Very winnable.

Since starting the season 5-0, Vanderbilt has lost four straight. Tennessee is a certifiable mess, as illustrated by the Vols' home loss to Wyoming on Saturday. There is still a sporting chance this 6-4 Kentucky team could be 8-4 overall, 4-4 in the SEC.

But being a great defense means playing great defense game after game, Saturday after Saturday. And there are two Saturdays to go.

"We're going to take a hard look," Brown said, "because we've got to win these next two games."