As UK's football team enters into their final pre-conference test versus Western Kentucky, let's review what the 'Cats have shown us on the field in their first three games, versus what we need to see tonight. With a road game at Alabama only a week away, the SEC countdown clock is nearing zero.
What we have seen: Mike Hartline play better than expected.
The sophomore signal caller has shown more poise and on-the-field leadership than many thought him capable of only a month ago. He's been booed by the home crowd, albeit, only a minority of the Commonwealth faithful, and he also won the SEC Offensive Player of the Week Award two weeks ago after his performance against a game Middle Tennessee squad ( he's handled both ends of the fan behavior spectrum with much aplomb ).
We've not seen him throw an interception, which us certainly a pleasant surprise considering his youth and inexperience.
What we need to see tonight: Some semblance of a vertical game, and continued cool play under pressure. Although Hartline has shown considerable accuracy and ability when throwing the short to intermediate passes, he has yet to show the ability to toss the long ball. That is partly due to the game-plan decisions of the coaching staff, partly due to the youth of his receivers, and partly due to his ever-so-slight inaccuracy on the few stretch-the-field attempts he's made to this point.
Hartline and his receivers must at least show the ability to stretch the field, because the speed of the SEC defenses will not allow only a short to midrange pass game. In order to be successful offensively against the nations best teams, UK must demonstrate they can throw the ball long, or UK's future opponents will stuff eight or nine defenders in the box and Kentucky's offense will cease to exist.
What we have seen: UK"s offensive line struggle with opening gaps for the running backs, but doing a credible job of protecting the quarterback.
What we need to see tonight: Offensive line domination.
With the return of O-lineman Garry Williams, UK will now be back at full strength in the offensive trenches. The front four need to show they are capable of creating holes for UK's best weapons, because as of yet, they have not performed up to their anticipated capabilities.
What we have seen: The running game struggle; the four primary backs are averaging 2.9 yards per carry versus FBS competition.
What we need to see tonight: A per carry average of 4.5 to 5.0 yards, at minimum.
WKU did not show a propensity to stop the run versus Alabama and Indiana, and they have also given up a number of big plays to the ball carriers. UK has to take advantage of this Topper defensive weakness. If not, then going into SEC play one can have very little confidence that UK will be able to score on some of the best defenses the nation has to offer.
What we have seen: UK's defense perform admirably, but against Middle Tennessee they did give up a number of big plays.
What we need to see tonight: Defensive domination; in my view, UK's defense is the biggest question mark; I don't question that they are strong, I question how strong.
After-all, they have yet to play what one would consider a strong offensive unit. The front four of UK"s defensive corps have been able to gain penetration and pressure the quarterback with regularity ( without the benefit of much blitzing ), although against MTSU, quarterback Joe Craddock at times had several seconds to pick apart UK's secondary. That has to change tonight. WKU quarterback K. J. Black is extremely athletic, and possesses the ability to elude the rush. With Western head coach David Elson's spread/option attack the 'Cat's defensive front will be in for a test unlike any they have experienced this year. If they are to have any hope in stopping, or even slowing down the likes of Tim Tebow or Vanderbilt's Chris Nickson, they must keep Black under control.
Western doesn't run the ball particularly well, so UK overpowering their ground game is imperative in order for me, or anyone else, to have confidence going into the SEC slate.
Coach Brooks made a switch this week; benching safety Ashton Cobb in place of former quarterback Matt Lentz. A lack of focus and effort in practice was the stated reason for the change by coach Brooks. I say good for you coach. Lentz has wowed 'em since the spring with his athleticism, but he hasn't gotten much playing time so far this year. After he shakes off his nervousness ( I'll give him one play ) I expect to see Lentz perform up to the standard set by Marcus McClinton, Cobb, Trevard Lindley and David Jones ( Robbie McAtee has also performed well ).
UK will have a definite defensive advantage in the team speed category, so a recurrence of the big plays that MTSU executed will be unacceptable tonight; the 'Cats need to crush the Topper's when the red and black have the ball ... period.
What we have seen: Punters Tim Masthay and Ryan Tydlacka perform marvelously.
What we need to see tonight: A continuation of the same.
Folks, field position is so very important. UK has two punters who's talents almost guarantee the opponents will start drives from deep inside their own territory. That trend must continue; giving UK's defense an opportunity to work their magic.
What we have seen: Inconsistent field goal kicking.
What we need to see tonight: Ryan Tydlacka, if given the chance, make all of his attempts inside 45 yards.
As of yet, UK's poor kicking game hasn't cost them ( thank you Rob McAtee ), but it was only a matter of time. Tydlacka was an All-State performer at Trinity High School, and beat out Lones Seiber in a two man competition over the last couple of weeks. Kentucky has to solidify that position, let's hope Tydlacka is the answer.
What we have seen: Poor receiver play.
What we need to see tonight: Receiver play that doesn't give Joker Phillips a coronary.
The youth of the receiving corps ( except for Dicky Lyons ) has resulted in dropped balls, incorrect route running, and an inability to finish running the right routes. They also have not picked up on the check-offs at the line.
All of that has to stop. UK has practiced now for two months, the youth excuse, as it pertains to the above sins, is no longer valid. All of the young receivers have the physical talent needed to perform at a high level, and it is now time to prove they belong.
I don't expect perfection, but definite signs of progress need to be visible ... and no drops would be greatly appreciated.
What we have seen: Conservative play-calling.
What we need to see tonight: An opening up of the playbook.
For reasons that are understood, offensive coordinator Joker Phillips and Rich Brooks have been hesitant to allow Mike Hartline to utilize the entire playbook. It is now time to see exactly what we have.
The WKU game affords UK's offensive personnel the opportunity to succeed and build confidence.
The countdown clock is nearing zero; it's now or never.
What we have seen: A near loss to Middle Tennessee.
What we need to see tonight: UK -- 38 WKU -- 10.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!