Mark Story

Where has the defense gone?

By their very nature, Senior Nights are a time for reflection and nostalgia.

Unfortunately for University of Kentucky football, the 2008 farewell to its departing players featured an unwelcome blast from UK's recent football past.

What has gone wrong with the Kentucky defense?

On a night when UK had a prime chance to secure a seventh win for a third consecutive season for the first time in 57 years, the Cats instead lost 31-24 to Vanderbilt.

The staunch Kentucky defense that all but beat Louisville by itself in the 2008 season opener now seems a distant memory.

After not allowing a foe to score more than 24 points in a game in its first six contests, Saturday night was the third time in the last four games in which the Kentucky 'D' surrendered 30 points or more.

Florida (63 points) and Georgia (42) boast some of the most talented offensive skill players in college football.

But Vandy came to Lexington with the 12th-ranked offense (total yards) in the Southeastern Conference.

The Commodores had gone five straight games without scoring more than 14 points in a contest.

They needed two drives of the first quarter to put that many on the Commonwealth Stadium scoreboard.

For the season, Vandy was averaging almost 256 yards of offense a game.

Against Kentucky, they had 290 yards of offense in the first half.

By that time, Bobby Johnson's scholarly lads were up 24-7. UK and its defenders were in full head-scratching mode.

Why, just as it did last week against Georgia, did the Kentucky defense seem to start the game running in molasses? Two games in a row now, UK has fallen behind 14-0 in quarter one.

A team with, shall we say, offensive limitations such as Kentucky, just can't afford to get itself into such holes.

"I can't explain it," said Kentucky cornerback David Jones. "We're not getting games started off like we need to. We stopped them in the second half. We need that second half from the start of the game."

Continuing with the throwback tribute to struggling defenses of recent UK football past, the Cats struggled mightily against a mobile quarterback running the read option.

Vandy's Chris Nickson — who had lost his starting job earlier this year to Mackenzi Adams — torched the Wildcats.

The senior from Brundidge, Ala., threw for three touchdowns and ran for 118 yards.

Part of Kentucky's problem defending Nickson was a new blocking wrinkle Vanderbilt put into its offense that caused UK defenders to misread some of Vandy's quarterback runs, UK Coach Rich Brooks said.

"But we're not as physical attacking the ball right now," Brooks said of his defense.

In fairness to the Kentucky defense, it didn't get much help early in the game.

The Cats had what became Vandy's second TD drive stopped before a roughing-the-punter penalty on freshman Winston Guy allowed Vanderbilt to continue its scoring march.

The Commodores' third TD was set up by an interception thrown by UK freshman quarterback Randall Cobb at the 21. And the final three of Vandy's 24 first-half points were set up by a bad Brooks coaching decision to go for a fourth-and-8 at the Vandy 43.

UK failed to convert and left the Commodores with a short field to convert a 39-yard field goal with two seconds left in the half.

After halftime, Vandy managed only 78 yards of offense. But the hole was too deep.

"They made some plays on us, and we didn't respond very well," said Kentucky middle linebacker Micah Johnson.

Earlier in the year, the Kentucky defense seemed able to surmount UK's often stagnant offense and mistake-prone special teams.

Maybe the Cats defenders were asked for too much and have little left in the emotional tank.

Or maybe, as the SEC season has progressed, teams have figured out the Wildcats. It's clear that teams attack UK's press coverage in the secondary by attacking Kentucky's nickel backs.

Vandy's D.J. Moore burned UK's Robbie McAtee for the game's first touchdown in just such a situation.

Whatever the reason, those early-season comparisons of the 2008 UK defense with the legendary 1977 Kentucky 'D' of Art Still and Co. have lone since gone away.

Said David Jones: "We've got to get back to the way we were playing earlier."

In this case, the throwback to defenses of Kentucky's recent past ruined 2008's Senior Night.