John Clay

A third of the way through 2019, what do we know about this UK football team?

With the Wildcats heading to South Carolina on Saturday night, we are officially one third of the way through this Kentucky football season.

So what have we learned so far about Mark Stoops’ troops?

To be honest, there haven’t been many surprises. Given the quality of talent absent from a year ago, we knew it would be tough for the Cats to replicate the 10-win glory of 2018. And sure enough, after standing 4-0 overall, including 2-0 in the league at this point a year ago, Kentucky is 2-2 and 0-2.

What we didn’t foresee was UK losing its starting quarterback for the season just two games in. Coming off a full year as a starter, junior Terry Wilson was showing improvement just as he tore the patellar tendon in his left knee in third quarter against Eastern Michigan.

Enter Sawyer Smith. On the one hand, the Cats are fortunate to have the experienced grad transfer from Troy. On the other hand, his experience came in the Sun Belt Conference. No offense, but it’s not the SEC. Adjustments must be made.

Smith generally acquitted himself well against Florida, completing 23 of 35 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns, though he did toss three interceptions. At Mississippi State last week, in his first SEC road start, Smith threw a pick-six four plays into the game. He ended up 15-for-41 on a day the Cats threw 42 passes. “And what did that get us?” asked Stoops on Monday, poking back at the critics who want UK to open up the attack.

To be fair, Smith banged his shoulder near the end of the first half. Under frequent pressure, he was sacked three times. He missed some throws, but his receivers dropped others. The good news was the Cats ran the ball effectively. A.J. Rose rushed for 105 yards on just nine carries. The bad news was that by falling behind early — 7-0 before the fans had taken their seats; 21-3 by halftime — they couldn’t run it enough.

Statistics show signs of life. At season’s end last year, Kentucky ranked 104th in total offense at 360.8 yards per game. So far this season, UK ranks 68th, averaging 419.0 yards per game.

As expected, it’s the reverse on defense. The senior-laden 2018 unit ranked 23rd in total defense at 337.9 yards per game. This year’s younger defense ranks 78th at 398 yards per game.

It’s easy to blame the secondary. Youth has been compounded by bad luck. Veteran safety Davonte Robinson tore a quad muscle before training camp. Yusuf Corker, the team’s best safety, was ejected early and his backup, Taj Dodson, was injured late in UK’s 29-21 loss to Florida. It’s hard to hurry maturity.

The secondary could also use help from the guys up front. Before the season, Stoops said the defense must play to its strength, i.e. its front seven. But Mississippi State rushed for 241 yards, the second-highest total by an opponent since 2017. Led by Josh Allen, UK averaged 2.92 sacks per game in 2018. This year, with Allen a Jacksonville Jaguar, that number is 2.25, including 1.5 in SEC games.

Now comes South Carolina, on alarm since losing to North Carolina in the opener. The Gamecocks are 1-3. The heat beneath Will Muschamp’s seat would scald if not for an $18 million buyout. And as you might have heard, South Carolina has dropped five straight to UK. Stretching the streak to a half-dozen might drive the Gamecocks fan base over the edge.

Stoops’ Cats can’t worry about that. They have their own concerns. They are about where most though they’d be at this point — they were underdogs to both Florida and Mississippi State, after all — with plenty of winnable games remaining on the schedule. To get those wins, all they have to do is improve. Starting Saturday.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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