UK Football

Kentucky defense goes back to tackling basics

Kentucky Wildcats defensive end Za'Darius Smith (94) tackled Mississippi State Bulldogs running back Josh Robinson (13) near the line of scrimmage as the host University of Kentucky lost 31-45 to Mississippi State University football team at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday October 25, 2014 in Lexington, Ky.  Photo by Mark Mahan
Kentucky Wildcats defensive end Za'Darius Smith (94) tackled Mississippi State Bulldogs running back Josh Robinson (13) near the line of scrimmage as the host University of Kentucky lost 31-45 to Mississippi State University football team at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday October 25, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Mahan Herald-Leader

Josh Robinson pinged off Kentucky defenders like a pinball.

Ping off Khalid Henderson and ping off Marcus McWilson and ding, ding, ding off Matt Elam.

The Mississippi State running back ricocheted and rolled off of eight UK defenders before his scamper all around Commonwealth Stadium came to a rest under McWilson and Alvin "Bud" Dupree.

It was just a 23-yard gain, but Cats coaches will get plenty of yardage from that one play for the rest of the season as they harp on the importance of tackling.

"That was embarrassing to watch just how people were missing tackles and people had him wrapped up," Dupree said. "There's no excuse for missing that many tackles."

It's been a back-to-the-basics sort of week at Kentucky, which heads to Missouri after allowing a combined 629 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground to Louisiana State and the top-ranked Bulldogs.

Coaches are harping on fundamentals daily. It's probably a word the players hear as they're falling asleep at night.

It's ramped up a notch this week.

"If your shoestring's not tied the right way — in a fundamental way — then they tie it in a fundamental way," Dupree said. "So just a lot of different things the coaches point out now that make a big difference in the game, can make a big difference, big keys. We've gotta correct them, try to do it to keep going."

There have been extended tackling drills, drills to encourage swarming to the ball.

"Eleven hats have to get to the ball," cornerback J.D. Harmon said. "We're doing a good job of swarming the football and getting those tackles in practice. ... Swarming the football and tackling are going to be key in this game."

Coaches want to make sure players understand that they're first job is to get the guy down, then try to strip the ball. On video, it was clear that players were trying to strip the ball before they had the back wrapped up.

"The first man to the ball has to make a good, physical, tough tackle," Coach Mark Stoops reiterated. "And then second and third guys sometimes can go for the strip, but you have to secure it first. So there (were) a few plays that were not what you want on your highlight reel."

No, UK's highlight reel was not filled with plays from the game against the top-ranked Bulldogs or a 41-3 dud at LSU the week before, but Stoops doesn't think the ground is crumbling under his run defense.

Going into that game against LSU, the UK defense was giving up 152 yards a game on the ground, a respectable 3.9 yards per run.

That all changed against the Tigers and State. More than 40 percent of the yardage the Cats have given up this season has come during the past two games against run-heavy opponents.

There were a handful of explosive plays that did an excessive amount of damage statistically. In the LSU game, it was five plays for 144 yards, all during the second half.

If you take those plays out of the equation, UK allowed 159 yards on 45 runs, which equals 3.5 yards per play.

"I'm not crazy, I've coached defenses that were pretty darn good against the run," Stoops said. "The good news is if you take away some of the explosive runs that can get corrected in certain spots, just physically we actually did some very good things."

In the Mississippi State loss, there were three big plays (including a nifty 73-yard TD run by Robinson) for 133 yards that killed the Cats. Remove those, and UK allowed 48 runs for 193 yards, or 4 yards per carry.

Of course, every team wishes it could magically erase an opponents' biggest plays, but UK is trying to learn from them, pointing out what went wrong and also noting the things that went right on the other 40-plus plays in each game.

The coaches think Kentucky still can have a good run defense if it focuses on the fundamentals. The next test is Missouri, which averages 160.4 yards a game on the ground, just half a yard more than UK's offense.

But Missouri stressed the run against Vanderbilt last week and had a season-best 244 yards on the ground.

"We have a great attitude, and I think we have the talent to be good enough to have a good run defense," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Our players are really concentrating and focusing on doing everything right, doing the little things right."

Notes

Kentucky running back Stanley "Boom" Williams has been able to practice this week after missing the Mississippi State game due to a head injury suffered at LSU.

"He's looked good," Stoops said Thursday. "Should be pretty fresh. Any time you get some time off and then come back, could help that way."

■ UK probably will be without tight end Steven Borden for a second straight game after an undisclosed injury. He might be out a couple of weeks or more, his head coach said.

"It's just not progressing as well as we had hoped, and I think it's a little bit more serious than we originally thought," Stoops said.

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