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A tale of two units: Devastating defense and suspect offense

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The defense

Kentucky's newly vaunted defense recorded several seldom seen landmark achievements in Sunday's 27 -2 road rout of the Louisville Cardinals:

  • U of L failed to score an offensive touchdown for the first time since the 2000 season.
  • U of L had their lowest home point total since 1987.
  • UK held an opponent to zero offensive points for the first time since 1996.
  • UK last held a home opponent to two points or less in 1976.

I think it's safe to toss away those questions about Kentucky's defense.  Consider them answered. 

The credit for UK's punishing defensive effort can be spread around all over the field, from the front four ( Myron Pryor, Corey Peters, Ventrell Jenkins, Jeremy Jarmon ), to a secondary that blanketed U of L's receivers like grandma's home-made quilt.  Defensive coordinator Steve Brown must be grinning like a proud papa over his defenses rise from slightly better than incompetent, to downright devastating, in a little over a year. 

The devastation begins with Myron Pryor.  He was nothing less than a ubiquitous presence in U of L's backfield and of great concern to quarterback Hunter Cantwell.  The 'Cats only got to Cantwell for two sacks, but that doesn't begin to tell the story of what Pryor and his defensive cohorts reined down on the Card quarterback; too many pressures to count ( Pryor did have 4 ), at least 5 deflections, and a general disruption of what Cantwell was trying to achieve.  Cantwell did have occasion to scan the field, but no defense in history has pressured every pass attempt.

What made the Wildcat effort even more impressive was the fact that the four O-lineman bothered Cantwell to the point that Steve Brown didn't have to employ the blitz, which enabled UK to comfortably cover U of L's receivers, especially in the flat.  That's a reversal of a decades long trend. 

To go along with Pryor and his mates up front, middle linebacker Micah Johnson deserves credit for stopping a potential momentum swing just before the half; with UK up 10 - 0, U of L had the ball on UK's 21 yard line.  On fourth and one, UL coach Steve Kragthorpe, perhaps sensing an opportunity to change the flow of the game, decides to go for the first down instead of kicking a field goal.  The result; running back Brock Bolen is wrapped up by a swarm of Wildcat defenders led by Micah Johnson ( assisted by Pryor, and linebacker Johnny Williams ). 

Johnson ( co-team leading 5 tackles ) had this to say about UK's harassment of Cantwell, and the U of L receivers:

"We felt like he was out of sync from the word go.  We were jamming ( the receivers ), taking the timing routes away from him that they do so well.  And there was pressure on him.  Guys always had their hands up in his face."

The list of overall defensive achievements looks like this:

  • A Pryor forced fumble resulting in an Ashton Cobb fumble return for a touchdown.
  • Six pass break ups.
  • Seven tackles for loss.
  • A Johnny Williams created fumble, returned by Pryor for a touchdown.
  • Five total takeaways.
  • Three interceptions.
  • Held U of L to 1.8 yards per rush.
  • Held U of L to 5 - 16 on third downs.
  • Held Cantwell to only 20 - 43 passing.
  • Held U of L to only 7.6 yards per reception.
  • On a Ventrell Jenkins tip, Trevard Lindley returned the interception to the U of L two yard line.
  • Held U of L to 205 total yards ( only 53 passing ). 

The Card bashing didn't stop with the front four and linebackers.  UK's secondary also performed extremely well.  Trevard Lindley is the most heralded of the UK secondary, but new starting cornerback David Jones played beyond his experience ( which is nonexistent at the cornerback spot ); he was thrown at more than any other in the secondary, and he had his man covered without fail.  The only misstep he suffered was getting turned around in the end zone, allowing receiver Troy Pascley a chance for a touchdown catch, but luckily for Kentucky, he dropped the ball.  Marcus McClinton made a spectacular interception at the 6:05 mark of the fourth quarter; his falling-down body-twisting pick was one of the more athletic moves I've seen lately, and on this day served as a death-knell for all those wearing red  ( maybe that's why Papa John's looked like Commonwealth Stadium an hour before kick-off, after the INT ).

An additional trend reversal that occurred Sunday; Kentucky's secondary allowed only precious few yards after the catch.  The reason for that is the fact that UK's defensive backs and safeties are experienced ( except for Jones ), and they all possess great speed.  Their ability to anticipate the throw was also on display, which added to the considerable difficulties Mr. Cantwell was experiencing.  Even though U of L's receivers and quarterback are inexperienced, I'm still looking forward to seeing how UK's secondary performs against SEC competition; I think a few folks are going to be unpleasantly surprised ( I'm talking to you 'Visor' ).   

Defensive devastation on this day, but can we expect this type of performance week-in and week-out?  After-all, U of L is breaking in a new quarterback ( anybody want to rethink that Unitas Award watch list ), and the Card receivers are greener than Hank Hill's lawn.  The Louisville running backs came into the contest as being a potential bright spot in U of L's offense, but they are also young and inexperienced.  So what is one to take away from this impressive display?  Is UK's defense that good, or was their performance a product of U of L's youth?

I suspect, after watching a tape of the game, that UK's defense is going to be as good as advertised.  But, I have no expectations that they will be as overpowering every week as they were Sunday.  The offenses that UK will face in the future, in particular in the SEC, are much more polished, experienced, and blessed with more speed and beef up front.  But, hey, not a bad way to start the season.

On an A to F grading scale, the defense gets an A+.

The offense 

I thought, considering the play calling and Mike Hartline's youth, that he did what was asked of him, and he didn't hurt his teams chance at victory with mistakes.  Even though Hartline was only 16 -31 ( zero interceptions ) through the air, a closer look at the statistics reveals a slightly better performance:

  • Of his 15 incompletion's, six were not his fault; Kyrus Lanxter dropped a pass at the U of L 11 yard line because he tried to run with the ball before he caught the ball ( for those of you new to football this is just the opposite of what he's supposed to do ).
  • Lanxter missed a perfectly thrown fade in the corner of the end zone; this would have been a terrific catch, but the ball was thrown where only Lanxter could catch it, and Joker likes his fades thrown short.
  • Hartline had to throw away three balls due to excellent coverage, or because a defensive lineman was in his face ( the end zone toss- away which resulted in a safety was a no-brainer; Hartline either throws the ball away, or takes a hit ). 
  • DeMoreo Ford had a drop. 

Hartline did not play perfectly, of course; he overthrew a wide open T. C. Drake in the flat on the first play of the second quarter, which would have resulted in a touchdown.  He overthrew Drake again, by a yard or so, with a long pass into the end zone ( Drake had his man beat by a step ).  And he overthrew an open John Connor in the first series of the second half, which would have resulted in first down. 

Hartline had this to say about UK's offensive performance:

"Our whole ( offensive ) game plan was not to do anything stupid, was to take care of the ball and when we had opportunities, to try to take advantage.  We played smart ball today."

I tend to agree with him.  UK had only one turnover ( a Tony Dixon fumble ), and although Hartline's numbers are not awe-inspiring, he did what was asked by Phillips and Brooks. 

Conversely, one troubling aspect of the offenses performance came on this series with 10:00 minutes left in the game, and UK up only 13 - 2:

1st down on U of L's 12 yard line -- Derrick Locke up the middle for no gain,  2nd down -- Locke up the middle, hit for a three yard loss, 3rd and 13 -- Hartline complete to T. C. Drake for an eight yard gain.

That particular series was a microcosm of the games play calling.  I certainly understand, and do not question Joker Phillips and Rich Brooks wanting to be conservative with the offensive game plan on this day.  But, I think that trying to get Locke or Alfonso Smith out on the edges would have been a more successful choice.  After the way that UK's offensive line was inexplicably handled by U of L all day long, and with the speed UK's backs possess, running to the corners just seems logical. 

Not to pile on UK's O-line, but keep in mind when reviewing UK's 1.9 yards per carry average ( resulting in 63 net rush yards ), that the backs were hit either in the backfield, or within one yard of the line of scrimmage on 15 of 31 rush attempts ( yes, I counted ).  The three primary ball-carriers, Tony Dixon, Locke and Smith combined for 28 carries for 74 yards.  If before the game someone would have told me that would happen, I would have responded with rolling eyes.  But the joke would have been on me.  The offensive line simply MUST play better.  They have one month until Alabama, after that, things could get ugly for the 'big uglies'  who occupy space in front of Hartline. 

The key to this teams success ( i.e. 7 wins ) is the running game, because the defense will not ALWAYS be the game-winning unit.  Holding Georgia, Florida and Steve Spurrier to single-digit points will be nearly impossible, so at some point UK will have to score some offensive touchdowns, and all that begins with the front four opening up some running lanes.  Which is something they did not do Sunday.

Overall, gaining only 210 total yards is not good, regardless of how one spins the number.  But there is definitely talent on that side of the ball, it's just young.  Hopefully with some experience, and confidence which can be gained over the next three games, they will improve enough to be competitive versus the elite of the SEC.

To end the offensive review on a positive note; freshman Randall Cobb is very good when he has the ball in his hands.  He led the team with three receptions for 31 yards, and showed why he is being raved about by all around him.  He seems to have huge, soft hands, and he is very quick.  I envision him being used more and more as Hartline evolves as a quarterback.  My crystal ball says he will be special.

Offense grade -- C-

Special teams

After the defensive performance, the special teams play was UK's saving grace; both Tim Masthay and Ryan Tydlacka punted the ball exceptionally well.  Masthay averaged 42.8 yards on four punts, and Tydlacka averaged 41.7 yards on three punts ( Masthay's kick-off after the safety, from the twenty yard line to the two yard line, most decidedly a 'wow' moment ).  UK won the field position battle largely off the power of the two punter's legs, with U of L starting a drive in UK's territory only three times.  If Kentucky continues to play in close games ( and you know they will ), the importance of solid punting will continue to be at the top of UK's must-do list.

Also contributing to the special teams success:

  • Dicky Lyons played mostly marvelously on special teams, except for fair-catching a ball he didn't catch, resulting in a 50 yard punt for U of L, and lost yardage for UK ( about 15 ).  Lyons caught six punts for 64 yards.  Many of those yards coming after the funky Lyons juked his pursuers, leaving them tackling air. 
  • Lones Seiber did what was asked of him.  He made two short field goals ( missing a 49 yard attempt ), and all of his point after tries.  Coming off of a rough ending to last year, Seiber needs to get and maintain is confidence in order for UK to have every chance at victory.
  • Freshman Matt Roark recorded a tipped field goal attempt. 

Overall an excellent effort by the special teams.

Special teams grade -- A

Final Analysis

A 27 -2 demoralizing of ones hated rival is never a bad thing.  And in the end, that's what matters.  UK won the game convincingly, in the fourth quarter, where over the last couple of years UK has dominated ( finally, a continuing trend of a positive nature ).  They won despite being very conservative on offense, and having to rely on a host of young receivers.  

Additionally, I think this was the first step in the education of Mike Hartline, and if Hartline is as smart as he seems, then I feel his quarterbacking abilities will catch up with his intelligence.  I look forward to watching him 'grow up' before our very eyes.  

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!