A month ago, the idea of Kentucky’s flailing defense taking on the Southeastern Conference’s leading running back might have made Mark Stoops’ stomach turn.
A month ago, UK was coming off a second-half collapse to Southern Miss to start the season. Stoops’ defense had allowed 520 total yards, including 262 on the ground.
The next two weeks weren’t much better, the Kentucky defense gave up 500 or more yards of offense each time and opponents were averaging 243 yards rushing.
But the last two games, including the last one against top-rated Alabama, the Kentucky defense has started to see a shift.
“Night and day really. Night and day,” Stoops said Monday when asked about the recent turnaround. “We’re growing and we’re getting better.”
The 264 combined rushing yards allowed to South Carolina and Alabama was 2 yards shy of the 262 permitted alone in the opener to the Golden Eagles.
It wasn’t some secret formula or magic wand, either.
Some of it was getting back to basics, focusing on fundamentals.
“So I think fundamentally we’ve got guys playing better, better technique and executing some things,” Stoops told Tom Leach on his Monday morning coach’s show, including better technique and execution of the called plays.
And some of the change was the coaches trying to adjust to the skill sets they had available.
“We had some areas, some deficiencies early in the season that we felt like we were trying to protect and we tried to do too much,” Stoops said. “Then what happens is your team, the players, the things we can do, we weren’t doing well.”
The coaches put their heads together and tried to figure out exactly what UK’s defense with its inexperienced front seven could do effectively and efficiently and build from there.
We “zeroed in on that and we’re doing it much better,” Stoops said of his defense, which has gone from being the nation’s 122nd (out of 128) scoring defense giving up a league-worst 43.7 points a game to allowing 35 points a game.
There’s a better sense of unity and pride in that defensive group now, the coach said.
“We’ll get better with every practice that we have, every game,” Stoops said, noting there’s still plenty of room for improvement. “They’re getting better. Fundamentally, understanding the structure of the defense. We’re not beating ourselves as much.”
Specifically, in the last two games, the UK defense has allowed just two rushing touchdowns after permitting eight combined in the first three games.
While all of this sounds like incremental differences, Stoops sees lasting changes taking shape, including bringing along some younger players on the interior defensive line such as T.J. Carter, Tymere Dubose and Naquez Pringle.
But there’s still some work to do on the perimeter where Alabama exposed some work still in progress for Kentucky.
The Cats’ ability to stop the run will get a serious litmus test Saturday against Vanderbilt and junior star Ralph Webb, who leads the Southeastern Conference and is 14th nationally in rushing yards with 116.4 per game.
His 23.6 carries per game (third-most in the country) could see an even bigger bump this week with some uncertainty at quarterback.
Vandy announced Tuesday that starter Kyle Shurmur will wear a shield on his face mask to protect his eye, which was injured last week against Florida.
Regardless of the quarterback situation, Stoops expects to see a heavy dose of Webb on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.
“They’ve really settled in on what they want to do offensively and they really want to pound the football and they want to create extra gaps,” Stoops said. “It’s not just pushing you around, they try to create gaps with all the shifting and motioning they do.”
Webb, the first player to run for more than 100 yards on Florida this season, has 46 career carries against the Cats for 157 yards, including 113 yards last season.
“He's a very good player,” Stoops said. “Very good vision, strong, breaks tackles. He's a complete back.”
And now the challenge is on the Kentucky defense to see if it can be more complete, too.
“You’ve got to figure out what they can do and how they can execute,” Stoops said. “That’s all of us. That’s coaching and players. It’s not on them. But together, we’re figuring it out and making some improvement and you’ll continue to see that.”
Vanderbilt at Kentucky
4 p.m. Saturday (SEC)
SEC’s leading rushers
Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt
Rawleigh Williams, Arkansas
Kerryon Johnson, Auburn
Trayveon Williams, Texas A&M
Boom Williams, Kentucky
Nick Chubb, Georgia
Kamryn Pettway, Auburn
Nick Dylan Fitzgerald, Miss. St.
Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
Derrius Guice, LSU
Trevor Knight, Texas A&M
Damien Harris, Alabama