UK Football

John Clay: Cats' 3-1 start feels different this year

Kentucky defensive coordinator D. J. Eliot talked to the defense Saturday during the first half of the Cats' game against Missouri. Kentucky won, 21-13, to improve its record to 3-1, and 2-1 in the Southeastern Conference.
Kentucky defensive coordinator D. J. Eliot talked to the defense Saturday during the first half of the Cats' game against Missouri. Kentucky won, 21-13, to improve its record to 3-1, and 2-1 in the Southeastern Conference. Herald-Leader

This time around, it just feels different.

The record shows that the Kentucky football team was 5-1 at one point last season. It was 2-1 in the SEC. The Cats were rolling. Head coach Mark Stoops was awarded a contract extension. And then, the wheels fell off. Six straight losses followed.

Now here we are this year, and the Cats are 3-1. They are 2-1 in the SEC after Saturday night's 21-13 win over defending East Division titleist Missouri. For the second straight season, Stoops' troops are off to a fast start; we know, thought that such a start doesn't guarantee a thing.

And yet for a variety of reasons, this season's early success feels different.

[Down 3 starters, UK's piecemeal offensive line steps up big in win over Missouri]

Reason No. 1 is experience. It can be assumed the Cats are older, wiser and more mature about such matters. They've been through this before.

Patrick Towles' performance Saturday night was a good example. Florida's persistent pass rush didn't give Towles much of a chance on Sept. 19, and even when the former Highlands star had time to throw, he was inaccurate two-thirds of the time. Towles didn't pout, or sulk or suffer a crisis of confidence, however.

Saturday night against Missouri, Towles was back on his game. Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson made the remark that during the week, Towles seemed comfortable in his own skin. That showed under the lights. When Missouri took a 10-7 lead, Towles engineered a TD drive for a 14-10 advantage. When the Cats needed a fourth-quarter score to seal the deal, Towles went 5 for 5 passing on a 93-yard touchdown drive.

"It helped," Towles said when asked whether experience played a part in the way he handled a week filled with the critics calling for his job. "It helped a lot."

[NFL notes: Williamson makes 8 tackles in loss; Tamme's day cut short by helmet-to-helmet hit]

Towles has more experienced help, as well. Dorian Baker bounced back from a drop-filled Florida game to make tough catches against Missouri. Garrett Johnson is no one-game wonder. Even though Jojo Kemp is no longer the lead back, he has shown the maturity necessary to step up when called on.

Stoops' defense feels different, too. Coordinator D.J. Eliot had a couple of future pros in Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith to call on last season, but this year, his defense is deeper and more consistent.

Jason Hatcher's return has made a noticeable difference. The junior defensive end made eight tackles Saturday night. Some were tackles with no one else in the area. After sitting out the first two games because of a suspension, Hatcher is starting to live up to his playmaker billing.

Defensive tackle C.J. Johnson, who admitted that he has taken the time to learn the system, had a monster game subbing for Regie Meant. Ryan Flannigan, a starting linebacker back from a shoulder injury, chased a Missouri receiver deep down the sideline to break up a long pass.

"Hey," he explained afterward with a huge smile, "I played some safety in junior college. I can make that play."

After Saturday's win, UK's first over a ranked team in five years, head coach Mark Stoops wisely avoided the turn-the-corner question. He's all about preparation. If you prepare the right way, the right results will follow.

It's setting up that way. After next Saturday's game with FBS member Eastern Kentucky, Auburn comes to the renovated Commonwealth Stadium for the first Thursday night home game in school history. Picked by the SEC Media to win the conference, Auburn is the league's biggest disappointment. Gus Malzahn's offense is a mess. Before the season, Kentucky's chances of winning Oct. 15 appeared a long shot. Now, not so much.

In fact, at this date, you would consider Kentucky considerable underdogs at Georgia on Nov. 7 and possibly Mississippi State on Oct. 24. That's it. Kentucky should be competitive (at least) in every remaining game.

Of course, we're still just a third of the way through the season. Kentucky was 5-1 in 2014 when the winning suddenly stopped. And yet 2015 feels different. Now we'll see if it turns out differently.