Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s win at Southern Miss

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops argues with referee Hubert Owens during UK’s 24-17 win over the Southern Miss Golden Eagles at M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg, Miss., Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017.
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops argues with referee Hubert Owens during UK’s 24-17 win over the Southern Miss Golden Eagles at M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg, Miss., Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017. aslitz@herald-leader.com

Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 24-17 win at Southern Mississippi on Saturday:

1. Huge step foward in stopping the run

After Kentucky ranked 110th out of 128 FBS teams in rushing yards allowed per game (228.2) last season, head coach Mark Stoops and first-year defensive coordinator Matt House put a premium on major improvement in 2017.

So far, so good. The Cats held Southern Miss to a mere 55 yards on 38 carries, the second-fewest rushing yards allowed in the five years of the Stoops Era. Southern Miss’ star running back Ito Smith, who gashed the Cats for 173 rushing yards in that 44-35 Golden Eagles triumph last season, was limited to 37 yards on 16 carries.

Stuffing the Southern Miss run game forced the Golden Eagles to not just throw the ball with two inexperienced quarterbacks, but on downs in which offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson may not have wanted to throw the ball. As a result, USM connected on just 22 of 40 passes, though the completions did result in 309 yards.

Forcing the home team into passing situations allowed UK defensive ends/outside linebackers Josh Allen and Denzil Ware to both tee off on the Southern Miss quarterbacks. Allen finished with a sack and three tackles for loss. Ware registered a sack, a TFL and recovered two fumbles. He returned the second 20 yards for the touchdown that extended UK’s lead to 24-10.

Afterward, Stoops praised his team’s tackling and position on the ball. And though the UK defense appeared to tire in the fourth quarter -- Southern Miss ran 78 plays to Kentucky’s 55 -- it rallied on the final two possessions for the needed stops.

2. Offensive line needs work and continuity

The loss of Cole Mosier may be more significant than we first thought. For those inside the UK camp, the torn ACL that Mosier suffered in training camp was heartbreaking. Mosier is a senior, after all. His season sacrificed to surgery, his college career is over.

For those on the outside, the assumption was sophomore Landon Young would smoothly assume Mosier’s starting spot at left tackle. By the end of last season, Young was nearly splitting playing time with Mosier. Young, a former Lafayette star, was a coveted recruit when he committed to UK two years ago. If there was a drop off in experience from Mosier to Young, there wouldn’t be a drop off in talent.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Not yet, anyway. Right tackle Kyle Meadows began taking reps at left tackle, with George Asafo-Adeji played right tackle. Saturday, Meadows and Young split time at left tackle and Young appeared to have his struggles.

Inside the tackles, UK appeared to struggle, as well. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran attributed some of the trouble to Bunchy Stallings getting banged up at center. That caused Nick Hayden to move from guard to center, which added to the lack of continuity along the offensive front.

It didn’t help that Southern Miss’ front four is considered the strength of its defense, which ranked 16th in the nation in total defense last year. Plus, the USM defensive line showed a lot of motion on nearly every play, stunting, twisting, confusing UK’s front line.

“It wasn’t good,” said John Schlarman, Kentucky’s offensive line coach.

That’s the same Schlarman, however, that said last week it might take two or three games for the offensive line to sort itself out. He’s probably right. Look for the staff to focus on five or six it can depend on, then supplement others when rest is required.

3. Special teams/turnover margin positives for a change

A year ago, Kentucky struggled mightily in the punting game and ranked a woeful 107th nationally in turnover margin. Its seven wins nonwithstanding, that combination isn’t usually a recipe for success. Saturday, UK showed noticeable improvement in both areas.

Start with the punter. Graduate transfer Matt Panton edged out incumbent Grant McKinniss in fall drills, then starred in his UK debut. The Australian averaged 42 yards per punt. Five of his nine attempts pinned Southern Miss inside the 20-yard line Two of those were downed at the one-yard line.

New special teams coordinator Dean Hood’s only gripe was with himself. Hood said he needs to find his punt coverage team more practice time against fake punts -- even though UK did stop USM’s one fake short of the first down. And Hood took the blame for Panton’s lone touchback, saying he should have called for a rugby punt instead of a pocket punt in that situation.

Meanwhile, Kentucky won Saturday’s turnover battle 3-1. When UK runnning back Benny Snell fumbled inside the USM five-yard line in the first half, you couldn’t help but have that here-we-go-again feeling. After all, the Cats fumbled the ball away 16 times last year. After that, however, Kentucky’s play was clean while the UK defense forced Southern Miss into three lost fumbles. And Ware turned one of those into six points.

Overall, while certainly not a dominating performance, it was a winning performance. And I’m not certain this was a game Kentucky would have won earlier in the Stoops Era, not even last year. Despite not playing its best football, the Cats showed enough maturity, depth and resilience to start the season 1-0. Right where you want to be.

Kentucky top 10 run defense games past 20 years

Date

Opponent

RA

RY

Avg

Res

11/10/12

Samford

27

-2

-0.07

W

10/28/06

@Miss St

24

24

1.00

W

9/13/08

Middle Tenn

23

31

1.35

W

10/21/00

Georgia

24

38

1.58

L

11/1/08

@Miss St

27

43

1.59

W

8/31/08

@Louisville

29

53

1.83

W

9/27/14

Vanderbilt

22

54

2.45

W

10/9/99

S Carolina

30

55

1.83

W

9/1/02

@Louisville

24

55

2.29

W

9/9/06

Texas State

26

55

2.12

W

9/2/17

@Southern Mis

38

55

1.45

W

Kentucky game-by-game under Mark Stoops

Date

Opponent

UK

Opp

Dec

Rec

SEC

8/31/13

vsWestern KY (nashville)

26

35

L

0-1

9/7/13

Miami (O)

41

7

W

1-1

9/14/13

Louisville

13

27

L

1-2

9/28/13

Florida

7

24

L

1-3

0-1

10/5/13

@South Carolina

28

35

L

1-4

0-2

10/12/13

Alabama

7

48

L

1-5

0-3

10/24/13

@Mississippi St

22

28

L

1-6

0-4

11/2/13

Alabama State

48

14

W

2-6

11/9/13

Missouri

17

48

L

2-7

0-5

11/16/13

@Vanderbilt

6

22

L

2-8

0-6

11/23/13

@Georgia

17

59

L

2-9

0-7

11/30/13

Tennessee

14

27

L

2-10

0-8

8/1/14

8/30/14

UT-Martin

59

14

W

1-0

9/6/14

Ohio U

20

3

W

2-0

9/13/14

@Florida

30

36

L*

2-1

0-1

9/27/14

Vanderbilt

17

7

W

3-1

1-1

10/4/14

South Carolina

45

38

W

4-1

2-1

10/11/14

UL-Monroe

48

14

W

5-1

10/18/14

@LSU

3

41

L

5-2

2-2

10/25/14

Mississippi St

31

45

L

5-3

2-3

11/1/14

@Missouri

10

20

L

5-4

2-4

11/8/14

Georgia

31

63

L

5-5

2-5

11/15/14

@Tennessee

16

50

L

5-6

2-6

11/29/14

@Louisville

40

44

L

5-7

9/1/15

9/5/15

La-Lafayette

40

33

W

1-0

9/12/15

@South Carolina

26

22

W

2-0

1-0

9/19/15

Florida

9

14

L

2-1

1-1

9/26/15

Missouri

21

13

W

3-1

2-1

10/3/15

Eastern Kentucky

34

27

W*

4-1

10/15/15

Auburn

27

30

L

4-2

2-2

10/24/15

@Mississippi St

16

42

L

4-3

2-3

10/31/15

Tennessee

21

52

L

4-4

2-4

11/7/15

@Georgia

3

27

L

4-5

2-5

11/14/15

@Vanderbilt

17

21

L

4-6

2-6

11/21/15

Charlotte

58

10

W

5-6

11/28/15

Louisville

24

38

L

5-7

9/1/16

9/3/16

Southern Miss

35

44

L

0-1

9/10/16

@Florida

7

45

L

0-2

0-1

9/17/16

New Mexico St

62

42

W

1-2

9/24/16

South Carolina

17

10

W

2-2

1-1

10/1/16

@Alabama

6

34

L

2-3

1-2

10/8/16

Vanderbilt

20

13

W

3-3

2-2

10/22/16

Mississippi St

40

38

W

4-3

3-2

10/29/16

@Missouri

35

21

W

5-3

4-2

11/5/16

Georgia

24

27

L

5-4

4-3

11/12/16

@Tennessee

36

49

L

5-5

4-4

11/19/16

Austin Peay

49

13

W

6-5

11/26/16

@Louisville

41

38

W

7-5

12/31/16

vsGeorgia Tech

18

33

L

7-6

9/1/17

9/2/17

@Southern Miss

24

17

W

1-0

9/9/17

Eastern Kentucky

9/16/17

@South Carolina

9/23/17

Florida

9/30/17

Eastern Michigan

10/7/17

Missouri

10/21/17

@Miss State

10/28/17

Tennessee

11/4/17

Ole Miss

11/11/17

@Vanderbilt

11/18/17

@Georgia

11/25/17

Louisville

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