The last time the Kentucky Wildcat (2-2, 0-1) football team locked horns with the No. 1 LSU Tigers (4-0, 1-0), one of the biggest, most important victories in UK pigskin history was the result. It was October of 2007, and the No. 17 'Cats came into the contest 5-1, with a loss at South Carolina the only blemish on their record. LSU, like today, was ranked No. 1 in the country, and looking to bury the 'Cats under the ground attack of Charles Scott and Jacob Hester. But what was to follow was a back-and-forth smash-mouth affair, fittingly ended by a helmet rattling hit by Kentucky linebacker Braxton Kelley on Scott, as the Tigers fell a yard short on fourth-and-2; the team's fourth rushing attempt to gain a drive-sustaining first down. The contest will be remembered as a 43-37 three overtime thriller for the ages by Wildcat fans. A game in which UK, for fifty years the whipping boy of the brutal SEC, announced its presence with authority.
But, that was then, and this is now. Now, the 'Cats, a youthful, offensively challenged club searching for an identity and an offensive line (allegedly now mended), travel to where opponents go to die, aka Death Valley, instead of welcoming No. 1 LSU into the comfy confines of Commonwealth Stadium, as they did four years ago. Now, instead of Andre' Woodson throwing the ball, Keenan Burton and Stevie Johnson catching the ball, and Rafael Little running the ball, UK has inexperience and youth steering the rudder. Now, instead of a confident group of young men taking on the toughest team in the land, a group of young men 13-6 in their previous 19 games, UK is a team struggling to score points, struggling to stop the opponent's offense, and struggling to hold onto the football.
Comparisons? Other than the color of the unis, there is no comparison. But there is hope. Hope that UK's much-maligned offensive line will perform half as competently as their preseason press clippings suggested; hope that running backs Josh Clemons and CoShik Williams will have seams to run through, instead of running up the backs of their retreating o-line; hope that UK's receiving corps will actually catch and hold on to the ball; hope that quarterback Morgan Newton will have time to read his routes, instead of locking onto his hot read; hope that the d-line will get penetration, finally slowing down the opponents running game.
Even if hope becomes reality, though, this game is one tough contest. To find out how tough, follow me after the jump.
Meet the Tigers, the Mighty, Mighty Tigers
With the passing game and spread offenses becoming the offensive impetus of teams throughout college football the last several years, LSU continues to do it the old fashioned way: Running the ball down the throat of their opponent. Although Tiger quarterback *Jarrett Lee (6'2" senior) is completing his tosses at a 64.4% rate (56-87), and has thrown only one pick on the year -- after majoring in interceptions the last two seasons -- Les Miles has opted to keep the ball on the ground, satisfied to slowly debilitate the opposition by gaining ground yardage, and consume the clock with run-based drives. On the year, LSU has thrown 64 passes, while running ball 174 times, or 73.1% of the time.
* Suspended starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who was reinstated earlier this week, will probably not see playing time today since his first day of practice was Thursday (but I would NOT put anything past Les Miles).
Leading the LSU ground charge is sophomore running back Spencer Ware (5'11" 223lbs) who has rushed for 318 yards on 77 carries (4.1 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. Ware, a downhill runner around the edges, but who will also burst through the Tiger offensive line between the tackles (more on those guys later), possesses the deadly combination of great speed and power. It usually takes more than one tackler to bring him down, which leaves him target No. 1 of Kentucky's much-maligned run defense. Sophomore tail back Michael Ford is the other Tiger most likely to cause headaches for Joker Phillips. Similar in size to Ware at 5'10" 215lbs, Ford is a bit quicker to hit the hole than Ware, but just as difficult to bring down -- In goal line situations, look for Ford to get the ball. On the year, Ford has run for 300 yards on 52 carries (5.8 ypc) and a team leading six touchdowns.
Alfred Blue, a 6'2" 215lb sophomore, will also run the ball against the 'Cats today. More of a power back, Blue has rushed the ball 18 times on the season, running for 76 yards (4.2 ypc) and two touchdowns.
Allowing the Tigers to be so affective on the ground is an experienced, tough-minded offensive line led by 6'4" 305lb center P.J. Lonergan. Last year, while starting all 13 games, Lonergan was credited with 76 knockdown blocks, tops on the team. Right tackle Alex Hurst, at 6'6" 340 lbs, poses a real mountain of a problem for UK's defensive linemen. A two-year starter, Hurst was responsible for 48 knockdown blocks last season, one of the reasons the Tigers will run his way early and often. Right guard Will Blackwell, at 6'4" 290lbs, has rebounded quite nicely from a leg injury which kept him out of nine games last year, but did not keep him from being named to ESPN.com's 2011 All-SEC Bowl Team.
This group of o-linemen have given up only three sacks on the year, and have cleared the way for the Tigers to run for an average of 179.0 yards per game (4.0 ypc).
When Miles does opt to pass the ball, he has a couple of receivers in the Tiger fold fully capable of stretching the defense. One is Rueben Randle, a long 6'4" 208lb senior wide out who has caught 18 passes for 282 yards (15.7 yards per reception) and three touchdowns. The other is freshman speedster Odell Beckham (5'11" 183lbs), who has 17 catches to his credit, good for 193 yards (11.4 ypr) and one touchdown.
Defensively, the Tigers number one concern is stopping the run, something they have done with aplomb in the first four games -- Miles' squad ranks No. 2 in the SEC and No. 4 in the nation stopping the run; giving up a stingy 53.2 ground yards per game on 1.9 yards per carry. No team has rushed for over 100 yards against LSU, and last Saturday versus No. 16 West Virginia, the Tigers gave up only 70 yards on 22 carries to the Mountaineers (3.2 ypc) in their 47-21 victory.
Key to LSU stopping their opponent's ground game are three defensive linemen: 6'6" 306lb sophomore tackle Michael Brockers (3.5 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, and one interception); 6'3" 287lb tackle Bennie Logan (3.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack); and 6'5" 240lb end Berkevious Mingo (3.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack). UK o-line coach Mike Summers, whose crew has underperformed to an alarming degree this season, has to find a way to minimize the impact these three Tigers have on the 'Cats running game. UK's opponents have lived in the Wildcat backfield, making life miserable for quarterback Morgan Newton, and making positive ground yardage gains a tall and more-difficult-than-it-should-be task. If that troubling trend continues this afternoon in Death Valley, the 30-point spread the game currently sits at will be reached by halftime.
Forcing turnovers is the other, just as dangerous Tiger defensive specialty. On the season the Tiger D has accounted for 11 takeaways (versus only three giveaways), leaving LSU plus-eight in the turnover department, good for first in the SEC and fourth in the nation. With UK checking in at No. 78 in the country in turnover margin (nine takes vs. 10 turnovers), maintaining possession will be one of the Wildcat keys of the game.
The Tiger special teams are also excelling this season, with freshman punter Brad Wing earning SEC Special Teams Player of the Week honors last week for his 48.7 yard punt average against West Virginia (on six punts). Corner back Morris Claiborne, who moonlights as LSU's kick return specialist, is averaging 32.4 yards per return on kickoffs, and last week, after WVU pulled within six-points of the Tigers in the third quarter, returned a kickoff 99 yards, propelling LSU to the win. (And oh, by the way, Claiborne leads the LSU secondary with two interceptions).
One special teams positive for the 'Cats: Of LSU's 22 kickoffs on the year, they have zero touch-backs.
'Cats vs. Tiger Tidbits
LSU allowed 463 passing yards to WVU last week ... But, LSU turned the Mountaineers over four times ... The Tigers ran for 186 yards and three touchdowns vs. WVU ... West Virginia out-gained LSU 533-366 ... LSU is scoring 38.8 points per game, while giving up 14.2 points ... Tiger sophomore corner back Tyrann Mathieu has already tied the LSU career record for forced fumbles with seven ... LSU has outscored opponents 77-26 in the first half ... Conversely, Kentucky has been bested 41-9 in the first quarter ... In 20 trips to the red zone, LSU has scored 19 times, UK has scored in seven of 10 trips ... LSU opponents have scored in 10 of 11 red zone trips ... LSU is converting third downs 48% of the time, the 'Cats 29% ... LSU opponents have rushed for only three touchdowns ... The Tigers give up 235.8 yards per game through the air ... Kentucky averages 157.8 passing yards per game ... LSU has beaten three top 25 teams (WVU, No. 3 Oregon, and No. 25 Mississippi State), UK lost to Louisville.
So Called "Expert Analysis"
It doesn't take a Vince Lombardi football mind to know the 'Cats chances of winning this contest are super slim. Even ol' Lane Kiffin, buffoon that he is, would realize UK has the odds solidly stacked against them.
What 'Cat fans and coaches alike need to see is improvement. Improvement in all facets of the game, from all units (save punter Ryan Tydlacka, who has been terrific all year), and at least an attempt at controlling the line of scrimmage. Anything short of that should be considered utter failure.
Prediction: LSU 45 Kentucky 13
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!