The Kentucky football team needs a win. They need a win to stay in the race for first place in the East. They need a win, against a rapidly improving (thanks A.J. Green) Georgia squad, to solidify themselves as legitimate, especially after a bad loss to Ole Miss and a blowout loss to fading Florida. They need a win, because it's a home game, and SEC East champs don't lose home games ... or not more than one home game anyway (thanks Auburn). They need a win because it's homecoming, and we can't have the sharp-dressed ladies in a blue mood.
But, as motivated as the 'Cats might be (I don't look for, or expect a letdown after last week's emotional win), the Georgia Bulldogs and coach Mark Richt are desperate for a win after starting the season an uncharacteristic 3-4 (2-3). And with two of those wins coming against the worst Tennessee team in decades, and a Vanderbilt squad in search of scoring (not unusual), as well as a defense capable of keeping the 'Dores in games (highly unusual), Richt and Bulldog fans alike are bound to be uncertain of how good this team is. But, one thing is certain, a loss to UK will be perceived as a colossal failure by those wearing red and black. And just might serve to de-stabilize Richt's status as head Dawg.
So, what will it take for the 'Cats to go home happy Saturday night? Follow me after the jump and we'll answer the five questions Kentucky must answer in the affirmative in order to come out victorious over the Georgia Bulldogs for the third time in four years.
1) Will the defense play a complete game? After allowing a combined six points in the second half of the Auburn and South Carolina games, the Kentucky defense seems to be turning the corner from a youthful, mistake prone unit, to one that can at least offer a stern test for an opponent's offense. Tonight, slowing down rapidly improving freshman Bulldog quarterback Aaron Murray (112-181 for 1,653 yards), and running back Washaun Ealey (369 rush yards; 12 touchdowns) will be key to a Kentucky victory. Allowing the tandem to have their way for an entire game could be the difference in a win or a loss.
If UK defensive coordinator Steve Brown can discover the magic formula which enables his team to put together a complete performance, the Wildcat's chances for victory rise exponentially. Give up 450 yards of offense and 35+ points, and the 'Cats will be Homecoming losers on this night.
2) Will the defense limit big plays? With the return of Georgia All-SEC receiver A. J. Green, the Bulldogs now pose a very real, long-play, game-breaking threat. Since his return from suspension three games ago, Green has caught 16 passes for 279 yards (a very impressive 17.4 yards per reception) and two touchdowns.
UK's defensive secondary, which will hopefully at least attempt to double-team Green, must keep the speedster in front of them, and quite frankly, limit the chances they take. Because a missed INT will turn into six points the other way if the gamble doesn't pay off.
I'm like a broken record when it comes to how defend a stud receiver -- Be physical, be very physical. Pop Green early and often (within the limits of the five-yard rule), and let him know he's in a fight. If Mark Richt sends Green across the middle, the linebackers need to make him pay with a spine-shuddering, de-cleating hit.
A player the caliber of A. J. Green will more than likely gash the UK secondary for at least one big play -- stopping someone so talented for an entire game is very difficult proposition -- but allowing Green to have a career-day will spell doom for the 'Cats.
3) Will Donald Russell and Raymond Sanders keep the Bulldog defense honest? With the absence of Kentucky running back Derrick Locke for the second week in a row, Donald Russell will be counted on supply the 'Cats with some semblance of a running game. Last week against South Carolina, Russell performed adequately, gaining 41 yards on 18 carries. This week, though, look for the combination of Russell and Raymond Sanders to further establish the running game in an effort to keep the Bulldogs out of nickel (five defensive backs) or even dime coverage (six DB's).
With quarterback Mike Hartline playing the best football of his career, opponents will begin to take steps to eliminate UK's passing game. Russell and Sanders having solid games will go a long way in precluding the Bulldogs from "cheating" in the secondary.
4) Will Mike Hartline continue to play like the man with the golden arm? Hartline, who has thrown for 869 yards, seven touchdowns (with only one interception), while completing 70.7% of his throws over UK's last three games, has been the the primary reason for the 'Cats offensive outburst over that time-span. His decision-making has been outstanding, and his long ball has been on-target, enabling the 'Cats to stretch the field.
Tonight, Hartline's ability to get the ball into the hands of play-making receivers Randall Cobb, Chris Matthews, and La'Rod King, against a defense who has watched film of UK's dismantling of the SC and Auburn secondaries, will the tell the offensive tale of Kentucky's ability to put points on the board.
Note of Hope: Arkansas Razorback quarterback Ryan Mallett torched the Bulldog secondary for 380 yards and three touchdowns on 21-33 passing in the Razorbacks' 31-24 victory over the Dawgs earlier in the year. Obviously, this bodes well for Hartline and the 'Cats.
5) Will Kentucky win the turnover battle? It's really very simple -- If Kentucky wins or ties in the turnover category, they have an excellent chance of winning this game. Lose the turnover battle 3-0, as they did against an inferior Ole Miss team three weeks ago, and the Bulldogs plane ride back to Athens will be festive, to say the least.
Over the last two games Hartline has thrown 70 passes with no picks, and the UK ball carriers have held onto the ball, save one lost fumble against Auburn. If the "turnover-less" trend continues, the 'Cats will sit at 5-3 at night's end, but give up the ball, especially backed-up near the Kentucky goal line, ala Ole Miss, this will be just another game where 'Cat fans utter a familiar refrain ... this is a game UK should have won.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!