The Hilltoppers of WKU and the Wildcats of UK went at it last night in Kentucky's last out-of-conference game of the season. The Toppers, and particularly Bobby Rainey, produced some spectacular runs that should give them hope for the future, and I was impressed by the clean football that my alma mater played, having only one penalty (a roughing the passer call that was pretty close). Western is going in the right direction, even though they currently lack the kind of size and athleticism on the lines to compete against a league like the SEC. Kudos to the Toppers for taking on all comers and playing hard, clean football.
It has been an article of faith among SEC football watchers that Kentucky needed to show some offensive competence during the easier out-of-conference schedule. Up until this game, they have demonstrated very little offensively. The offense was almost non-existent at Louisville, struggled to score against Norfolk State, and despite gaining significant yardage against MTSU, struggled mightily to score in the red zone.
Yesterday against Western Kentucky, Kentucky demonstrated some offensive prowess, particularly on the ground. Unfortunately, the luster of this fact was reduced by two factors that should give 'Cat fans pause -- That most of the yards were gained in the second half, and that every other BCS team who has played Western gained more yardage than UK. Mark Story looks at the "Glass half full, glass half empty" viewpoint of the WKU-UK game. It would be nice to be able to say that UK has an SEC-worthy offense going into battle against an Alabama team that drubbed the highly-ranked Georgia Bulldogs yesterday in their home stadium, but unfortunately, we cannot. UK looked competent against a lesser foe last night, but I doubt that performance against the relatively weak Hilltopper defense will cause any SEC defensive coordinators to lose sleep at the thought of playing the Wildcats.
Still, we have to grant that Hartline looked better than he has previously, and seems to be growing well into the position. He showed a strong arm in a couple of vertical attempts that, even though they didn't connect, looked very respectable in both where the ball was thrown and the velocity it had on it. 'Cat fans have reason to be encouraged about Hartline, and Fidler looked like a competent backup in limited action against a lesser foe.
Overall, here is how I saw this game:
- Offensive line run blocking -- The run blocking looked better, but mostly in the second half. What happened in the the first?
- Wide receivers -- The wide receivers, particularly DeMoreo Ford, did some better things than they have done so far, but not nearly enough to give anyone confidence that there are more real threats on the field than Dicky Lyons Jr.
- Special teams -- Field goal kicking seem competent now with Ryan Tydlacka, but it is only his first game and against a lesser foe. The return game was excellent as usual, but kickoff coverage was really poor. Yes, Bobby Rainey was a phenomenal runner, but is he SEC-quality? I hardly think so. If not, we could be in for trouble against tougher foes if we don't improve. But on the plus side, Derrick Locke did return a kickoff for a touchdown, and Dicky Lyons barely missed doing the same with a punt return.
- Pass defense -- This was quite possibly the most dominant performance against the pass I have seen in college football in recent memory. How do you hold a Spread Option team to 15 yards passing? That's just unheard of, and it was primarily due to the utter domination of the Western offensive line by Kentucky's defensive line. Yes, the UK defensive secondary was very good, but the 'Cats defensive front was always in the face of the Western quarterback, and got four sacks for thirty negative yards.
- Run defense -- After the Wildcats figured out that Rainey was a serious threat, they shut him down, but not before he gained almost 100 yards against a Kentucky defense that has been very stingy against the run (#5 in the nation) up until now. It is a cause for worry. If the 'Cats struggled with Rainey, what will Knowshon Moreno do?
- The passing game -- Kentucky was competent in the passing game, but the UK wide receivers still have issues with route running, catching the football and blocking. The blocking was somewhat improved, but it's clear that UK has a long way to go to get the receivers up to SEC quality with the exception of Dickie Lyons Jr. Brooks can't be all that pleased with what he saw yesterday, but it was a clear improvement over the last game.
- Pass blocking -- Pass blocking was excellent against Western, but their defensive front is hardly SEC quality. Still, it was a good game for the line when it came to giving Hartline time to throw. I consider them untested at this point, except against a decent Louisville defense, but I think they may be fine.
- The running game -- Impressive in the second half, but what happened in the first? The running backs hit the holes, such as they were in the first half, hard, but the line simply wasn't getting the job done. The 'Cats did a much better job in the second half, racking up impressive yardage and some long runs, and pretty much looking like the team we expected to see. This game gives me some hope that we may be able to move the ball on the ground if we can get some kind of threat out of the passing game.
Overall, it was obviously a great defensive game for Kentucky, and a comptetent if unspectacular offensive game. The coaching staff has greased a few squeeky wheels, and even though UK didn't look like the well-oiled offensive machine they have been in the last couple of years, the first signs of genuine offensive faculty showed up yesterday, and that is a very good thing.
On the injury front, Justin Jeffries has a serious knee injury and is very likely done for the season. Even if it is more benign than many think, it is still going to sit him for a number of weeks, perhaps more than are left in the regular season. I hope for the best, but fear the worst. T.C. Drake also suffered an ankle sprain, but it doesn't look likely to keep him out more than a week. Maurice Grinter served capably and even rather impressively in his stead.
On the good news side, it is looking more and more likely that Randall Cobb's high ankle sprain will heal in time for South Carolina, if not Alabama. I expect to see Micah Johnson back at practice this week, and Ricky Lumpkin as well.
Next week we get the Crimson Tide, and the Elephants are coming of an impressive manhandling of the #3 team in the nation at their place. As the Tide has an open date after the UK game, that places next week's tilt firmly in the "trap game" category for them. We need to hope that they are still licking their wounds an enjoying the glow of defeating Georgia and vaulting to a top 5 national ranking (which they surely will) when the Wildcats bring their 4-0 record into Tuscaloosa next Saturday.