John Clay

Kentucky’s defense, led by Josh Allen, crucial to silencing The Swamp

Kentucky’s Josh Allen fired up the crowd during the first quarter against Central Michigan
Kentucky’s Josh Allen fired up the crowd during the first quarter against Central Michigan Lexington Herald-Leader

As per usual, the offense hogs the attention.

Recaps of Kentucky’s season-starting victory over Central Michigan included hot takes on quarterback Terry Wilson’s three turnovers, on backup Gunnar Hoak’s star supporting turn, on the twin 100-yard rushing tandem of Benny Snell and A.J. Rose, on former walk-on David Bouvier’s continued emergence. And the offense this, and the offense that. Yada, yada, yada.

Meanwhile, all but ignored in all that postgame analysis was an impressive factoid that, perhaps above all others, bodes well for the long, long journey that will be this Kentucky football season.

Josh Allen could not be blocked.

As numerical evidence, we present the glowing numbers on the stat sheet: Kentucky’s outside linebacker recorded 10 tackles, six of them solo, three of them for a loss, and one a seven-yard sack. Oh, yeah, he was also credited with a quarterback hurry.

We hear you. Isn’t that what Allen was supposed to do? After all the senior from the swamps of Jersey is considered UK’s best defensive player, a preseason All-SEC selection who has transformed himself from a two-star prospect into a possible first-round NFL Draft pick?

Well, yes. The thing is, not every projected NFL pick plays like a projected pick his final season. The player gets caught peeking ahead. Senioritis sets in. Opponents start game-planning to limit the player’s individual effectiveness. Call it a combination of factors.

For Kentucky’s defense to take a necessary step forward, however, surely Allen needs to play up to his abilities. And, with Allen a force to be reckoned with, the UK “D” showed some early signs of doing just that in the win over Central Michigan.

First, we feel obligated to issue a pair of disclaimers. Central Michigan is not a Power Five school and the Chippewas were breaking in several new starters, including a new quarterback, on Saturday. And we’ve been fooled a couple of times before into thinking Stoops’ defense had turned the corner.

Still, Central Michigan’s 255 total yards Saturday was the fewest against a UK defense since Charlotte managed just 233 on Nov. 21, 2015. (It was the sixth fewest of the Stoops era.) CMU’s eight first downs were the fewest since Vanderbilt managed just eight in 2014.

Kentucky beat Central Michigan 35-20 in their season opener Saturday at Kroger Field.

And after Central Michigan scored 20 first-half points off those four UK turnovers, the Kentucky defense blanked the visitors in the second half. The Chips’ possessions over the final two quarters: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, turned the ball over on downs after being stopped on a fourth-and-six at the UK 28.

Next up, Florida. (You knew that.) At The Swamp. (Yikes.) Over its 19-game losing streak in Gainesville, the Kentucky defense has been demolished many a time on Florida Field — 73 points allowed in 1994; 65 in 1996; 51 in 1998; 59 in 2000; 63 in 2008 and 45 its last visit in 2016.

Steve Spurrier, who gleefully goosed the score during many of those demolition jobs, might no longer be on the Florida sideline, but new coach Dan Mullen is fully capable of re-starting the Florida offense. Mullen is 8-1 against UK. He has developed such quarterbacks as Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald.

Feleipe Franks, Mullen’s current developmental project, threw for five touchdowns in the first half of Florida’s 53-6 cakewalk through Charleston Southern last weekend. Franks threw just nine TD passes a year ago, the same season he was benched at the half of the Gators’ eventual 28-27 win over the Cats at Kroger Field.

That’s where Allen and his (un)friendly teammates come into play Saturday. If allowed time to throw, Franks is capable of executing Mullen’s master plan. Put pressure on the quarterback, however, and good things can happen for the visitors.

And good things need to happen. When the Gators are rolling and the fans are rocking, The Swamp is a swirl of noise and heat and chaos that overwhelms opponents like a strong undertow. Kentucky knows. Been there, done that.

A silent Swamp is Saturday’s objective, and for that to happen surely Kentucky’s defense, led by Josh Allen, must play well.

Florida's winning streak over Kentucky is the longest one active in all of the Football Bowl Subdivision by one opponent over another. The 31 losses, displayed here in Herald-Leader headlines through the years, date to 1987.

Saturday

Kentucky at No. 25 Florida

7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)

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