UK Football

John Clay: Cats have to get better against the run

Kentucky senior safety A.J. Stamps just missed a touchdown saving tackle on what was Louisiana-Lafayette tailback Torrey Pierce's 26-yard scoring run. Pierce had another for 56 yards.
Kentucky senior safety A.J. Stamps just missed a touchdown saving tackle on what was Louisiana-Lafayette tailback Torrey Pierce's 26-yard scoring run. Pierce had another for 56 yards. Herald-Leader

To be sure, Patrick Towles was hit-and-miss Saturday night. The Kentucky quarterback hit some big pass plays early. He missed some big pass plays late. By his own admission, the junior was inconsisent against Louisiana-Lafayette.

What raised a brighter red flag in my mind during Kentucky's 40-33 win over the Ragin' Cajuns in the season opener, however, was what happened on the defensive side of the football.

Same as the end of 2014, the Cats began 2015 struggling to stop the run.

Louisiana-Lafayette rushed for 247 yards on 47 carries, averaging 5.3 yards per pop. That's the seventh time in the last 10 games that a Kentucky opponent has rushed for 200-or-more yards against the Mark Stoops/D.J. Eliot defense. Mississippi State rushed for 326 yards; Georgia for 305; LSU for 303.

Plus, what brought Louisiana-Lafayette back from a 33-10 deficit in the less than nine minutes was not long passes but long runs. Backup tailback Torrey Pierce scored on a 56-yard run. Then Pierce scored on a 26-yard run. Then with 7:36 left, backup quarterback Jalen Nixon scored on a 23-yard run that, when ULL executed the two-point conversion, tied the game at 33.

Kentucky's coaches chalked up those big plays to youthful mistakes. Having taken a 23-point lead, the staff gave reps to younger players, all talented but inexperienced.

Redshirt freshman Nico Firios was subbing for starter Josh Forrest at inside linebacker on Pierce's 56-yard touchdown. True freshman Josh Allen was at defensive end, when he came off the field, drew the ire of Stoops.

Matt Elam, a sophomore, was at nose guard and junior college transfer Courtney Miggins was at defensive tackle for the 26-yard touchdown run up the middle by Pierce, which cut the lead to 33-23. (Senior safety A.J. Stamps missed a tackle at the 10-yard line, as well.)

On Nixon's 23-yard TD run, redshirt freshman defensive end Denzil Ware got caught too far inside leaving the edge totally exposed. Once Nixon got past Ware, the quarterback was home free.

"Those freshman players that we have are good players, they're going to be good players," Eliot said afterward. "But they've got to learn. They've got to get the game experience and get better."

Also troubling about those drives was ULL conversions on third-and-short situations. The Cajuns' faced a third-and-two on the first drive, a third-and-one on the second and a third-and-one on the third. Louisiana converted all three.

Of course, Kentucky was without one of its starting linebackers in Ryan Flannigan, who remains out with a shoulder injury. And Stoops was not afraid to play newcomers, including true freshman Jordan Jones, at linebacker.

"We have some freshmen that were put in a position that we needed them to win this game," Stoops said afterward. "They did some good things, and they did some things we need to do a lot better."

Quickly. Saturday is UK's SEC opener at South Carolina. The Gamecocks had trouble throwing the football in their 17-13 win over North Carolina on Thursday. Quarterback Connor Mitch completed just nine of 22 passes. But South Carolina did run the football 47 times for 254 yards.

The Gamecocks' winning score was a 48-yard touchdown run by Shon Carson with 12:45 left in the game.

And Spurrier made particular use of the wildcat formation with both wide receiver Pharoh Cooper and running back Brandon Wilds receiving direct snaps. South Carolina ran nine plays out of the wildcat formation.

In South Carolina's 45-38 loss to Kentucky last season at Commonwealth Stadium, many thought Steve Spurrier got away from his running game too quickly. After the Gamecocks took a 38-24 lead with 11:45 left, the visitors ran the football just three times while throwing seven passes — two for interceptions — the rest of the way.

Spurrier isn't likely to make the same mistake twice.