John Clay

Despite what you might think, Kentucky’s football season is only beginning

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking Kentucky’s football season is pretty much over.

The Wildcats are 3-4. They’re 1-4 in the SEC. They were blanked 21-0 by Georgia in the Sanford Stadium soak on Saturday. Their offensive wheels are spinning. Their head coach is tired of answering questions about the quarterback situation. And basketball is almost here.

But the truth is, Kentucky’s football season is just beginning.

Five games to go. Five important games. Mark Stoops’ squad needs three more victories to earn the program’s fourth consecutive bowl trip. Given the relative strength of the teams remaining in the Cats’ 2019 datebook, three wins seem doable. No guarantee, but doable. That’s even with the continuing struggle that is the Kentucky offense.

Thank the UK defense. So good in 2018, that unit was expected to struggle in 2019. Josh Allen was gone. Mike Edwards and Lonnie Johnson were gone. So too were Jordan Jones, Derrick Baity, Chris Westry. To name just a few. You know the story. Davonte Robinson tore a quad muscle before the start of fall camp. What goes up must come down. Only now, seven games into the season, Stoops’ defense appears back on the rise.

“We feel really good about the past two, three weeks, the guys’ attitude, effort,” Stoops said Saturday. “They’re playing hard. They’re gaining a lot of experience. And they’re getting better with the games.”

In Saturday’s incessant shower, UK allowed Georgia just 270 total yards. That’s the fewest by a Bulldogs offense against a Wildcats defense since 1996. Bill Curry was the Kentucky coach then. The Cats held the Dawgs scoreless in the first half on Saturday. Were it not for a pair of second half, slip-ups, it might still be a scoreless game.

There was Max Duffy’s 15-yard punt. “I just shanked it,” said Duffy, who had been so, so good up until the football slid off the side of his foot. Georgia took over at the UK 39-yard line. A single snap later, the Bulldogs’ star running back D’Andre Swift was in the end zone.

Next came Lynn Bowden’s fumble. Two plays after Swift’s TD, the ball was on ground. Georgia recovered at the UK 31. On such a miserable meteorological night, a game with one turnover was a near miracle. But Kentucky committed it. And Georgia seized, scoring five plays later for a two-touchdown lead. Game over.

You can’t ignore UK’s problems on offense. The Cats are 102nd nationally in yards per game. A wide receiver playing quarterback worked against a struggling Arkansas. It did not work against a team ranked 10th in the AP poll. Bowden is a terrific talent, but Georgia stockpiles future NFL players on defense. With video of Bowden at quarterback, the Bulldogs were prepared. Against Arkansas, Kentucky produced six runs of 20 or more yards in the second half. Against Georgia, it managed one explosive play all chilly night. Bowden completed two of 15 passes. UK’s 177 yards were the fewest since 161 at Alabama in 2016.

But on the other side of the ball, you can almost feel the UK defense improving each week. Outside linebacker Boogie Watson is coming on. Sophomore linebackers DeAndre Square and Chris Oats are producing. Safety Yusuf Corker was all over the soggy field on Saturday.

“We’re getting there,” defensive coordinator Brad White said. “The look in their eyes on the sideline is a good luck, it’s a passionate look. It’s what you want when you have a really top-notch defense. To see where it started from to where they are now there’s a lot of confidence on that sideline.”

It’s what provides hope heading into this final five-game stretch, the most important stretch of the season. Missouri is coming off a surprise 21-14 loss at Vanderbilt. Tennessee is 108th nationally in total offense. Vanderbilt is 109th. UT Martin is an FCS program. Louisville is 111th nationally in total defense.

Football season isn’t over.

Next game

Missouri at Kentucky

7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)

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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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