Mark Stoops has had some darned good edge pass rushers in his coaching days.
As Florida State defensive coordinator, Stoops had Bjoern Werner, the 2012 ACC Defensive Player of the Year. In Stoops’ early days as Kentucky head coach, he had Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith, each of whom are still drawing NFL paychecks.
Yet after current UK outside linebacker/rush end Josh Allen decimated his third straight Southeastern Conference offense of 2018, Stoops said he’s never coached an outside pass rusher that played better than Allen is now.
“I can’t say that I have. I really can’t,” Stoops said. “He’s a really dominant player.”
No. 17 Kentucky whipped South Carolina 24-10 Saturday night before a sellout Kroger Field crowd of 63,081.
For UK (5-0, 3-0 SEC) it is the first time the Wildcats have won their first five games of a season since 2007. It was the fifth straight Cats victory over the Gamecocks, making South Carolina (2-2, 1-2 SEC) the only SEC program not named Vanderbilt that the Cats have beaten in five consecutive seasons.
Just as he did in UK’s prior SEC victories over Florida and Mississippi State, Allen wreaked havoc in the Gamecocks’ backfield.
The 6-foot-5, 260-pound product of Montclair, N.J., put up a gaudy stat line: Eight tackles, four tackles for loss, three quarterback sacks, one QB hurry and a forced fumble.
Allen’s unrelenting pass rush helped harry South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley into three costly interceptions.
“Josh Allen makes my job easy,” said UK cornerback Derrick Baity, who had one of the three UK picks. “But that’s Josh. He’s a great, great player.”
With the UK offense following a dominant first half (24-3 halftime lead) with a stagnant, penalty-filled second half, the Cats’ defense was left to finish off the victory.
Allen rose to that challenge. With South Carolina in a must-pass situation throughout the second half, Allen seemed to get stronger and stronger.
His first sack of Bentley came on a play that began with 1:52 left in the third quarter.
Sack number two came in the midst of a 20-play South Carolina drive in the fourth quarter that chewed 7:41 off the clock and yielded no points.
Allen’s final sack came against Gamecocks backup QB Michael Scarnecchia on South Carolina’s next-to-last play from scrimmage in the game.
On the Gamecocks’ final play, Allen settled for a QB hurry that forced Scarnecchia to throw incomplete.
“You get (Allen) in predictable pass, he’s very hard to block,” UK’s Stoops understated. “He really disrupts things.”
Allen is playing like a potential SEC Defensive Player of the Year. To use a basketball term, he is a “stat stuffer.”
In UK’s streak-busting victory at Florida, he had five tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a QB hurry and pass breakup and the game-clinching forced fumble.
Last week, as Kentucky throttled then-No. 14 Mississippi State, Allen had six tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, one hurry and a pass breakup — in addition to inducing the rattled MSU offensive tackles into six false-start penalties.
South Carolina did not make it as easy on Allen as Mississippi State did. Unlike MSU, the Gamecocks usually helped their tackles with an additional blocker.
“They were chipping him, as they should,” Stoops said. “They were putting a back on him and trying to take some shots to try to hit him in the ribs. Nothing illegal ... Just good, strong, chip blocks. He’s going to get that.”
For his part, Allen said he preferred his output vs. South Carolina to his stellar showing against Mississippi State.
“Definitely this week,” Allen said. “Get the sacks rather than the pressure.”
It turns out, the best player on the Kentucky offense and the best player on the UK defense enter games in a personal competition.
Wildcats’ star Benny Snell says he and Allen compete to see if the running back will score more touchdowns in a game or the defender will record more sacks.
Snell scored a single TD vs. South Carolina. Allen’s three sacks trumped that.
“He always tells me he’s going to match me,” Snell said. “He outmatched me today.”
Kentucky has not had a defender so consistently dominant against SEC foes since Art Still during the 10-1 season of 1977.
On Saturday night, Allen became the first UK player to record three sacks in an SEC game since Marlon McCree vs. South Carolina in 1998 and the first Cats player with four tackles for loss in an SEC contest since McCree against Florida in ‘98.
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games,” Allen said. “That’s what I live by.”
If Josh Allen keeps this up, there’s no telling where this magic-carpet ride of a football season may take Kentucky.
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory