UK Football

Kentucky committing turnovers at alarming rate; only one other team is worse

Kentucky tight end C.J. Conrad lost a fumble to New Mexico State during the first quarter last Saturday.
Kentucky tight end C.J. Conrad lost a fumble to New Mexico State during the first quarter last Saturday.

The whole line sounds like coach speak as Mark Stoops says it: “You can’t beat anybody until you stop beating yourself.”

But a dive into the numbers shows plenty of times that Kentucky has drowned in its own miscues early this season.

In the first three games, Kentucky opponents have scored 52 points off of Cats turnovers. That’s nearly 40 percent of their points coming from mistakes.

There was a span from the second half of the season opener against Southern Miss to the end of the first half against New Mexico State that Kentucky coughed the ball up 10 times across 99 plays.

“When you’re reeling, the turnovers in particular really put you in a bad mindset,” Stoops said this week, noting that during one stretch he charted UK as turning the ball over once every 8.5 plays.

“Then you start forcing things and guys get out of kilter. We have to start better and let the guys settle in.”

Only one other team in the country, Kansas, has more turnovers, and that’s just one more than Kentucky’s 10.

Those mistakes, like the two fumbles and one interception by then-quarterback Drew Barker in the season opener against Southern Miss, meant Kentucky ran only 14 plays in the second half and allowed the Golden Eagles to wear down a short-handed defense.

In the last game at Commonwealth Stadium, New Mexico State was able to score 14 points off of two of the Cats’ three first-half turnovers.

When the Kentucky defense already is struggling — and it’s struggling mightily: last in the Southeastern Conference in scoring defense (34.7 points per game), rushing defense (243 yards and eight TDs), passing defense (an average of 285 yards per game) and total defense (528 yards per game given up) — the mistakes take it from a bad situation to a dire situation.

“Anytime you’re not playing the best defense, you definitely don’t want to be put in bad situations,” Stoops continued. “When you score that many points you’ll take it, but you know and I know we’re not always gonna do that. We’d like to protect the football.”

Taking care of the ball will be key on Saturday against South Carolina, which has given up yardage in bulk this season, but forced four turnovers last weekend.

And the Gamecocks’ defense is No. 7 nationally in the red zone, pouncing on East Carolina’s mistakes inside the 20 last weekend.

The Pirates made six trips into the red zone and managed just nine points. Half of the Pirates’ visits ended in turnovers (two interceptions and a goal-line fumble).

Those kinds of mistakes can’t happen for Kentucky on Saturday, co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said.

“It’s us or nobody throws,” Hinshaw said is the message to UK quarterbacks Stephen Johnson and Gunnar Hoak. “We’ve got to throw the ball accurately when we throw it down there. And when we run it, we’ve got to hold onto the ball.

“East Carolina had multiple opportunities to win that game and when we get down in the red zone, we’ve got to take care of the football. We have to leave with points.”

Kicking things off

At first glance, it might seem a problem that Austin MacGinnis’ kickoffs are often falling short of the end zone, but it’s all part of a bigger plan, he said.

“Would you rather them have the ball at the 20 or the 25?” he asked matter-of-factly.

The kicker is allowed to be confident, especially when coupled with the Cats’ kickoff return unit this season, which has allowed just 16.4 yards per return, among the best in the nation.

The key has been MacGinnis’ high, long-hang-time kicks, which have allowed only two returns outside of the 25-yard line, special teams coach Matt House said.

“Kick the ball up and we cover well,” Stoops said this week. “That’s been the case the past couple years, not always perfect, but those guys are running and working. We’re kicking the ball better.”

House wasn’t too comfortable singling out one or two guys on special teams, but mentioned that J.D. Harmon, Kash Daniel and De’Niro Laster were strong last week for UK.

“It’s really a team effort, and that category of the game with all of that space, it’s never really one guy,” said House, whose group will face the Gamecocks, who saw true freshman running back A.J. Turner take the opening kickoff 80 yards last week. “I think guys have bought in and we continue to get better.”

The Gamecocks are second in the country in kickoff returns, averaging 35.5 each time, but it’s a small sample size since they’ve returned only four.

Kentucky has taken its 13 returns for an average of 23.2 yards, but the Cats still haven’t gotten that elusive return for a score since 2009.

“We’ll continue to work on that and get one of those,” Stoops said Monday, noting that one of the kickoff returners missed a hole that might have led to a score last week.

So far, UK has used three different players at the main kickoff return spot, running backs Sihiem King and Benny Snell and wide receiver Jeff Badet. Coaches decide who will get the job each week based on practice performance, House said.

Go, go gadget quarterbacks

A year ago, Kentucky’s starting quarterback Stephen Johnson was playing at a junior college in California, and South Carolina starter Brandon McIlwain was playing for his high school in Pennsylvania.

Johnson will be getting his first career start in a UK jersey, and McIlwain will be getting his first career start on the road.

The commonalities don’t end there. Both Johnson and McIlwain have impressive running ability, which could be problematic for both defenses.

Facing Johnson in practice hopefully has better prepared Kentucky’s defense for a mobile quarterback, defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said.

“It’s made us better because we face an athletic quarterback every day in practice,” he said of Johnson, who has thrown for three touchdowns and 355 yards (72 percent completion rate) while running 17 times for 60 yards in two games this season. “It’s made our defense better in that aspect.”

South Carolina has struggled offensively three games into the season — worst in the league in scoring offense (15.7 points per game), rushing offense (90.7 yards per game) and among the SEC’s worst in total offense at just 287.7 yards a game.

But first-year coach Will Muschamp thinks McIlwain is the answer.

“He believes in his ability,” Muschamp said of McIlwain, who has completed 52.5 percent of his throws for 356 yards and two touchdowns while running 27 times for 80 yards and two scores (on runs of 9 and 10 yards early in last week’s game).

“That’s a calming factor for him and for us and for our players in my opinion. We are in the early stages right now.”

UK’s Stoops, who will again share the play-calling duties this week, sees an offense gaining confidence under McIlwain.

Stoops said: “I’m sure there’ll be more plays implemented this week for Brandon as he gets more comfortable, but he’s definitely a guy that can hurt you with his arms and legs.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

UK scores, schedule

(Home games in capital letters)

Sept. 3: SOUTHERN MISS (L, 44-35)

Sept. 10: At Florida (L, 45-7)

Sept. 17: NEW MEXICO ST. (W, 62-42)

Sept. 24: SOUTH CAROLINA, 7:30

Oct. 1: At Alabama, 7

Oct. 8: VANDERBILT

Oct. 22: MISSISSIPPI STATE

Oct. 29: At Missouri

Nov. 5: GEORGIA

Nov. 12: At Tennessee

Nov. 19: AUSTIN PEAY

Nov. 26: At Louisville

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