John Clay

New Kentucky football keeps showing it’s not old Kentucky football

Saturday night was the type of game previous Kentucky football teams would have lost.

For starters, it was a cuttingly cold, windy night at Kroger Field, with at least half the crowd exiting by the fourth quarter. The departures were not so much because of the play on the field as the fact you can have your vision blocked only so many times by wild and free hot dog wrappers flying through the air.

And Kentucky passed the football for just 18 yards. That’s not a typo. There’s not a missing zero at the end of it, or a missing digit in front. The 18 passing yards were the fewest since the 2011. UK completed three passes. That was the fewest since the 2016 trip to Florida, the three-hour tour in which the Cats were crushed 45-7.

Last but not least, UK’s foe Saturday was Vanderbilt. And more often than not over the years have we seen the Cats and Commodores engage in gloomy weather conditions — usually in late November — in a dreadful headlock to avoid being tossed into the SEC East cellar. Such is their series history.

With all those factors in play, Kentucky won anyway, 14-7. Kentucky found a way to prevail, and in doing so proved yet again this is not a previous Kentucky football team. This is a first-place Kentucky football team.

At present, the Cats must share that distinction atop the SEC East. Heading to Missouri on Saturday, Mark Stoops’ squad is 4-1 in league play. So, too, are Florida and Georgia, whom both had the weekend off to rest up for this Saturday’s annual “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” in Jacksonville. When the game ends — not the imbibing — one of those two teams will have two conference losses.

There was a time Saturday night when you thought Kentucky would have two conference losses. The Cats turned the ball over on their first two possessions. They fell behind 7-0. And they spent a significant amount of time tied 7-7. And did we mention that they threw for just 18 yards? And no, they are not academy school or Georgia Tech. They do not run the triple-option. They are still trying to throw the football, just not with much success.

Thankfully, UK remembered it has Benny Snell. Last time out, the 20-14 overtime loss at Texas A&M, just 11 of UK’s 50 offensive snaps were Snell running plays. Saturday night brought a course correction, 32 of UK’s 62 plays were Snell running plays. He rushed for 169 yards. A glorious 74 came on UK’s game-winning 80-yard drive that ended with a 7-yard Snell touchdown run.

“That’s Benny Snell football,” he said afterward.

Truth be told, Kentucky won Saturday because of defensive football. The reason this is not a previous Kentucky football team is because this is not a previous Kentucky football defense. This one is good. Outrageously good. It is so good you are starting to consider something you thought you would never in a mega million years consider — that UK has a defense worth comparing to that one on that 10-1 team in 1977.

This Kentucky defense is now No. 2 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 12.9 points per game. (Fresno State is currently No. 1 at 12.6.) It has not allowed more than 20 points in a game and more than 17 points in regulation to an SEC opponent. It is 12th nationally in total defense, 12th in pass efficiency defense and 17th in rushing defense.

It has also reached that point where it knows it is good and wants to be even better, where it, to use a Stoops’ term, takes every yard and every point personally.

“We want this stuff bad enough, like more than we want to breathe almost,” said linebacker Kash Daniel, a cast on his broken left hand, after the game. “That’s how good of a defense we want to be.”

UK fans holding their breath Saturday could exhale. In a game previous Kentucky football teams might have lost, the current one won. And marches on.

Next game

No. 12 Kentucky at Missouri

4 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)

Top 10 FBS scoring defenses

1Fresno State12.6
4Miss. State13.6

SEC football standings


South Carolina2-33-3

Texas A&M3-15-2
Ole Miss1-35-3
Miss. State1-34-3
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