Sidelines with John Clay

Kentucky football: Nick Saban and Mark Stoops both see improved Cats

Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur attempts a pass in the Commodores’ loss to Florida last Saturday. Shurmur completed nine of 25 passes for 82 yards with one interception as Vandy fell 13-6.
Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur attempts a pass in the Commodores’ loss to Florida last Saturday. Shurmur completed nine of 25 passes for 82 yards with one interception as Vandy fell 13-6. Associated Press

Three takeaways from Mark Stoops’ press conference Monday reviewing the 34-6 loss at Alabama last Saturday and the matchup with Vanderbilt this Saturday:

1. Mark Stoops generally pleased with his team

Despite the 28-point loss in Tuscaloosa over the weekend, Stoops was upbeat about the way his team competed against the Crimson Tide. It didn’t sound forced or like the coach was putting lipstick on a pig. To his trained eye, he sees improvement.

That’s particularly the case on defense. After a rough first three games, Kentucky’s defense has shown improvement over the past two games. “Night and day,” Stoops called it.

The Cats’ first three foes (Southern Miss, Florida and New Mexico State) each piled up at least 500 yards in total offense. Two Saturdays back, UK held South Carolina to 268 yards in a 17-10 win. Last Saturday, Alabama gained 488 yards.

The Cats’ first three foes each rushed for over 200 yards. South Carolina managed just 91 yards on 35 carries. Last Saturday, Alabama gained 173 yards on 37 carries.

“Kentucky has got a much better team than what everybody gives them credit for, especially in the last couple weeks, when they’ve sort of been trying to run the ball and do what they can do very well,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after Saturday’s game. “Their defense has played a lot better, and I think that was certainly the case today. So you’ve got to give them a little bit of credit. You’ve got to give Mark (Stoops) a lot of credit for bringing his team back that way so that they’re playing hard and actually playing a lot better.”

2. Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb is a load

Coming into the season, I said Webb would be one of the five best backs the Cats will face, and he hasn’t disappointed. The 5-foot-10, 202-pound junior from Gainesville, Florida leads the SEC in rushing with 582 yards on 118 carries with five touchdowns.

Webb rushed for 97 yards in the season opener against South Carolina; 211 yards in VU’s win over Middle Tennessee; 69 yards in the loss to Georgia Tech; 95 yards and three TDs in the win at Western Kentucky and 110 yards last Saturday in the ‘Dores 13-6 loss to Florida.

Last season, Webb rushed for 113 yards on 33 carries in Vandy’s 21-17 win over visiting Kentucky. In 2014, as a freshman, Webb gained just 44 yards on 13 carries in the Commodores’ 17-7 loss in Lexington.

3. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers

“A big determining factor in the game this week will be turnovers,” Stoops said Monday.

Of course, the Cats’ cause in Tuscaloosa was hurt by quarterback Stephen Johnson losing a pair of fumbles in the first half. Kentucky is currently 126th out of 128 FBS teams in turnovers lost with 13. Only Bowling Green (15) and Duke (17) have turned the ball over more.

Meanwhile, Vanderbilt is tied for third in the SEC in turnover margin, at a +3 or a +0.6 per game. The Commodores have turned their opponents over nine times. Kentucky is last in the league in turnover margin at -7 or -1.4 per game.

Kentucky football in NCAA stats

Category

Rank

Average

Scoring offense

92

25.4

Total offense

102

352.4

Rushing offense

68

171.8

Pass efficiency offense

55

142.3

Third down offense

92

36.1

Scoring defense

102

35.0

Total defense

108

468.0

Rushing defense

97

198.6

Pass efficiency defense

96

142.0

Third down defense

126

53.2

Turnover margin

123

-1.4

Net punting

51

38.5

Kickoff returns

31

24.3

Kickoff return defense

13

16.7

Sacks

71

2.0

Sacks allowed

115

3.4

Penalties

32

46.4

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