John Clay

Kentucky football’s defense: An appreciation at the halfway point

Did Mark Stoops think the Kentucky defense would be this improved?

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks about his defense, which is currently ranked fifth nationally in points allowed per game.
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Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks about his defense, which is currently ranked fifth nationally in points allowed per game.

After the hand-wringing over UK’s offensive performance in last Saturday’s overtime loss at Texas A&M, it’s time to stop, take a deep breath, and appreciate the Kentucky defense.

This is a special defense.

In fact, at the halfway point of the 2018 season, Mark Stoops’ current Kentucky defense has a chance to be remembered as one of the best defenses the school has ever produced.

Through six games, the Cats are 14th in the nation in total defense, allowing 304.8 yards per game. The Athletic’s Max Olson calculates “stop rate” — percentage of a defense’s drives that end in punts, turnovers or turnovers on downs. He ranks Kentucky sixth in that category. Most importantly, UK is fifth in scoring defense, allowing a mere 13.8 points per game.

That would be the fewest allowed by Kentucky since Fran Curci’s 1979 team surrendered 13 points per game. It’s not too far behind the 1977 Cats, authors of the benchmark 10-1 season. That defense allowed a ridiculous 10.1 points per game.

Truth be told, college football was a different game back then. There were not the spread offenses and pinball numbers of today. Offenses were conservative. The wishbone was the new big thing. Plenty of coaches still subscribed to the theory put forth by legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, who supposedly said, “Three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad.”

This year, 68 of the 129 FBS teams are averaging 30-or-more points per game; 24 are averaging 40-or-more and three are averaging 50-or-more. Even No. 1-ranked Alabama is winning not with defense, but with offense, averaging 56 points per game. As one Alabama writer told me recently, if you put this year’s Crimson Tide offense with its defense of two years ago, you’d have one of the best college football teams of all time.

Kentucky is 5-1 by winning the other way. Stoops built his reputation as a defensive coordinator, first at Arizona, then Florida State. After six years of recruiting, building and developing, he’s seeing the fruits of his labor.

“I know what good defense looks like,” Stoops said Tuesday. “There’s not a lot of magic to it. You’ve got to get guys in the right spots, but they have to have that burning desire to play at a high level and play for each other.”

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This defense is playing with maturity, desire and confidence. Kentucky had no chance at Texas A&M without a stellar effort from its defense. When safety Darius West returned a fumble 40 yards for a touchdown with 4:17 remaining the Cats had the chance to steal a victory.

“Coming out of there, I felt like our guys played exceptionally well,” Stoops said. “And after watching the film, it was arguably one of the better games since I’ve been here the way we played defensively.”

It can always improve. Stoops pointed to a couple of opportunities on A&M scoring drives in which the Cats could have made stops. He mentioned communication, execution and seeing things, “They’re seeing some things unbelievably well. They’ve seen a lot of football and they’re really playing at a high level. But there are things we can do better.”

There is frustration with one area. The general feeling among the fan base is that UK’s best player, outside linebacker Josh Allen, is being held on almost every play. Stoops indicated Tuesday he has made the SEC aware of the issue, but that’s all he can say. “Or I will get fined,” he said with a smile.

Meanwhile, there are more games to play. Of the six teams left on the schedule, two are in the top 25 in total offense — Missouri No. 9; Georgia No. 23. The other four are much farther down the rankings — Vanderbilt at No. 75; Middle Tennessee at No. 92; Tennessee at No. 102 and Louisville at No. 115.

That’s an encouraging sign for the second half, especially for a Kentucky team with a special defense.

Next game

Vanderbilt at No. 18 Kentucky

When: Oct. 20, 7:30 p.m.

TV: SEC Network



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