UK Football

Five years in, there’s no excuse for Mark Stoops’ defense to be this bad

The number eight tells everything you need to know about the 24th modern battle for the Governor’s Cup between Kentucky and Louisville.

Lamar Jackson directed eight U of L drives Saturday. All eight yielded points — five touchdowns and three field goals.

So one year after Kentucky’s shocking upset of No. 11 Louisville roiled this rivalry, the Cardinals (8-4) emphatically reclaimed the Governor’s Cup trophy by blasting UK (7-5) 44-17 before 56,186 at Kroger Field.

A season ago, Jackson’s four turnovers helped make possible UK’s 41-38 upset.

On Saturday, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner got his revenge. Jackson completed 15 of 21 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 156 yards.

“Lamar Jackson is a special player,” Kentucky middle linebacker Courtney Love said. “I think he deserves to win the Heisman Trophy again. He’s a resilient, tough, executing player.”

From the Kentucky perspective, one stark question seems appropriate: Five years since Mark Stoops parlayed his success as Florida State’s defensive coordinator into the UK head coaching job, shouldn’t he have a better defense than this?

Asked that question, Stoops said, “I am surprised. I don’t think we would have gotten to seven victories had we not improved in certain areas. … (But) at times, that’s gone away, and it’s very hard for me to deal with.”

As a quarterback, Jackson is a transcendent talent. As an offensive tactician, Bobby Petrino is a near savant. The Cardinals entered the game third in the nation (560.4 yards a game) in total offense for a reason.

Yet what is beyond worrisome for Kentucky football fans — not to mention UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart — is that UK’s defense appears to be getting worse under Stoops, not better.

Consider: During Joker Phillips’ ill-fated, three-year stint (2010-12) as Kentucky head coach, UK allowed more than 400 yards to opponents in 45.9 percent of its games (17 of 37).

In the five seasons Stoops has coached Kentucky, the Cats have allowed in excess of 400 yards in 57.4 percent of their games (35 of 61).

Under Phillips, UK surrendered more than 40 points in 18.9 percent of its games (seven of 37).

With Stoops, Kentucky has allowed more than 40 points in 26.2 percent of its contests (16 of 61).

Part of the problem in the Stoops era is Kentucky is still not able to consistently generate a pass rush without blitzing.

Against a QB as fleet and gifted as Jackson, blitzers not being able to make plays Saturday were lethal to UK.

“We called a couple of pressures, one that came scot-free,” UK defensive coordinator Matt House said. “You don’t have any overlap (in the secondary) then, so if you miss, that becomes a huge explosive play. No doubt, that’s a big issue.”

In the big picture, it might also be time to wonder whether a 3-4 defensive front is really best for UK football.

Historically at Kentucky, 3-4 schemes have never worked long-term because the Wildcats struggle to attract the kind of dominant defensive linemen that system requires.

What was most distressing in 2017 is that teams that wanted to throw the ball — Missouri (355 passing yards), Mississippi (362) — could throw with ease on Kentucky. Teams that wanted to run the ball — Georgia (381 rushing yards) and Louisville (346) — could run with impunity against UK.

Still, even with Kentucky’s defensive struggles, Stoops is taking UK to its second straight bowl. After inheriting a 2-10 team, he deserves credit for that.

However, the widely held idea at the time of his hiring that Stoops was going to upgrade UK defensively has not happened.

It has not even come close to happening.

“It’s frustrating, and the consistency (is) not what it needs to be,” Stoops said of the UK defense. “That is bothering me.”

Five years in, it should be bothering everyone with an emotional investment in Kentucky football.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader