For decades, Kentucky has been preyed upon by freakishly athletic SEC edge rushers.
On Saturday, for a second straight year, the Wildcats were fighting for their lives in a season opener against Conference-USA foe Southern Mississippi.
At last, it was UK that unleashed a pair of disruption-causing pass rushers to win the game.
Getting yeoman’s performances from outside linebackers Josh Allen and Denzil Ware, Kentucky rode its defense to a 24-17 victory over Southern Miss before 22,761 fans in the M.M. Roberts Stadium.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“Just a hard-fought, tough victory,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said afterward. “(It was) a thing of beauty for me. (I) know a lot of people are going to have opinions, but I loved it.”
On a day when the UK offense (a meager 254 yards of total offense) looked like a unit that lost its leading rusher and three of its top four wide receivers from last season while also dealing with an offensive line hampered by injury and illness, Kentucky’s self-named “Blitz Brothers” rode to the rescue.
Allen, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior from Montclair, N.J., had five tackles, three tackles for loss, a quarterback sack, a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble that set up a UK touchdown.
Ware, a 6-2, 235-pound junior from Opp, Ala., had three tackles, 1.5 TFLs, a sack, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. His first recovery led directly to a Kentucky offensive touchdown.
His second recovery was a 20-yard scoop and score he recorded for himself.
For two guys who entered this year challenging each other to put up the best individual stats, it was a gaudy start.
“We feed off each other, man,” Allen said. “I want (Ware) to do great (because) he’s making me great.”
Said Ware: “We have a competition against each other at the end of the season, to see who has the most sacks, most forced fumbles, most TFLs. We’re just going to compete against each other.”
Ware said he last scored a touchdown in a game as a freshman running back. He had never recovered two fumbles in a game before, he said.
After he picked up the fumble that safety Darius West forced in the final minute of the third quarter with no one between him and the end zone, Ware said he had only one thought on his mind.
“Run. Run. Run,” he said. “’Cause somebody coming. And I don’t want the big hit to happen to me. So run, run, run.”
For students of fairly recent UK football history, the Wildcats’ 2017 opener looked a bit like their 2008 debut.
In 2008, the Kentucky defense carried an offense that had suffered massive loss of playmaking from the season before and shut down Louisville while scoring TDs itself in a 27-2 road victory.
Nine years later, that script was back in operation.
“Our defense played a hell of a game,” said UK quarterback Stephen Johnson.
Johnson, who goes against Ware and Allen in practice, knows firsthand the havoc they can create.
“It’s crazy how good they are,” Johnson said. “They just come off the side and, snap of a finger, they are right there next to you. I’m glad they are on my team.”
A year ago, when Southern Mississippi rallied from a 35-10 deficit to a 44-35 victory in Lexington, the Kentucky defense was widely panned for its role in letting what seemed certain victory get away.
For the “Blitz Brothers,” that made the UK defense’s role in throttling Southern Miss a season later all the sweeter.
“Oh man, it (does),” Allen said.
Said Ware: “It feels great, man, it feels great.”