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Kentucky Wildcat Football: Heartburn at Papa John's

One bright spot in UK's 32-14 loss to Louisville was the play of quarterback Max Smith.
One bright spot in UK's 32-14 loss to Louisville was the play of quarterback Max Smith.

Coming into the 2012 Louisville football game, the concern of most Kentucky fans was the ability of the Wildcat offense to put points on the board. It was a valid concern, especially considering UK's offensive numbers from 2011 told the tale of a team which was offensively challenged, as the 2011 'Cats averaged a mere 250 total yards per game while scoring less than 16 points per contest.

On the other side of the ball, the Kentucky defense, particularly the secondary and defensive line, were hoped to be at least competitive enough to keep the 'Cats in most games, considering both units returned most of its talent. In spite of the d-line being an alleged strength, the Kentucky linebacker corp, the other group responsible for containing the opposition's ground game, was a huge question mark, leading many to prognosticate the 'Cats might struggle mightily against the run after the loss of the SEC's leading tackler, Danny Trevathan, and hybrid go-getter Winston Guy.

One line of Wildcat thinking, though, purported that partially mitigating the loss of Trevathan and Guy were new starting linebackers Avery Williamson and Bud Dupree who impressed last season in limited playing time, and again in the spring and fall practice periods. This gave many UK faithful hope that SEC running attacks wouldn't run roughshod over the 'Cats, controlling the clock and gassing UK's D before halftime.

Reality, though, hit home, and hit home with authority as the Wildcats and Cardinals tangled on the turf in their annual battle for pigskin bragging rights in the Commonwealth.

The offense

Although the 'Cats scored only 14 points against UofL, Kentucky moved the ball competently, racking up 373 yards of offense and 24 first downs (to Louisville's 26) on the strength of sophomore quarterback Max Smith's 280 passing yards, on 35-of-50 accuracy, good for an outstanding 70 percent completion rate. Smith, starting his first game against UK's arch-rival, certainly looked the part of an SEC quarterback and should have silenced any doubters who wondered how effective he would be as the Wildcat's signal-caller.

The Kentucky receivers, the recipient of much-earned criticism last season for their insane number of on-target drops, redeemed themselves quite nicely against the Cards (with a few exceptions), as senior receiver leader La'Rod King and redshirt frosh Daryl Collins combined to snag 15 passes for 141 yards, with King netting his first touchdown of the season. And in a welcome where-are-they-now moment, senior Aaron Boyd caught three passes for 36 yards in what hopefully serves as his coming-out moment after three years of being UK's mystery man.

Kentucky's running game, minus presumptive starting tailback Josh Clemons, produced when asked to as the 'Cats' two primary ball carriers, CoShik Williams (who came back after a back-bending tackle in the first quarter) and Raymond Sanders, combined to rush for 100 yards on only 13 carries (7.7 yards per carry), but, and this is the big "but" in the ointment, both players turned the ball over once via fumbles, killing (probable) UK scoring drives and not allowing the 'Cats to keep up on the scoreboard. Add in kicker Craig McIntosh's missed 42-yard field goal, an attempt he's true on 95-out-of-100 times, and Kentucky lost at minimum 13 points (and a maximum of 17), and loads of "feel good" momentum with its coach-killing miscues.

Unfortunately, in many ways Sunday's battle for the Governor's Cup was reminiscent of Kentucky's 2010 football season, when UK's offense continually turned the ball over with fumbles and interceptions while still deep on the Kentucky side of the field, leaving UK's opponents with a ridiculously short field to maneuver in which to score. In the UofL game, though, UK took points off the board with fumbles on UofL's two- and 22-yard lines after sustained drives of 44 and 78 yards respectively.

Nothing deflates a football team more than turning the ball over when the offense is on the cusp of putting up six, and the end result of UK's turnovers, both in 2010 and against Louisville on Sunday, was a Kentucky football loss. There were enough offensive positives, though, for the Wildcats to make one believe this team is capable of lighting up the scoreboard just enough to garner some victories (how many is anybodies guess). But the 'Cats defense must help the Kentucky cause, something that most assuredly did not happen Sunday night at Papa John's.

The defense

There really isn't much to discuss when it comes to Kentucky's "defense" on Sunday. It was terrible. No, correction. It was beyond terrible, for the UK defense was so porous that even the most fastidious sponge would blush -- Case in point, the 'Cats' defense allowed scoring drives of 99, 93, and 85 yards to UofL on Sunday. That, cannot happen.

Making defensive matters worse, one could build a moderately sized single-family dwelling in the space between UK's corner backs and the Louisville receivers, which went a long way in allowing UofL quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to complete a Joe Montana-like 19-of-21 passes (232 yards) for the game.

Kentucky's pass rush, led by defensive ends Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham, got to Bridgewater twice, but that token pressure didn't come close to slowing down the sophomore as he looked relaxed and unaffected by UK's pressure.

Sadly, and perhaps surprisingly, UK's defensive line was wholly ineffective and bullied all day by the home team. Huge, gaping holes for the Cardinal running backs opened, allowing the tailbacks in red and white to scamper through mostly un-accosted as UofL piled up 239 yards rushing (4.8 ypc), dooming any hope the 'Cats had of upsetting Charlie Strong's squad as Louisville held the ball nearly 13 minutes longer than Kentucky.

Kentucky's defense was so bad, it is difficult to ascertain if UofL's offense is nearly as good as it showed Sunday, but one Wildcat positive to take away from the loss was that linebackers Williamson and Dupree combined to make 18 tackles, as Williamson also forced one of the three UofL fumbles (all recovered, of course, by the Cards), and Dupree recorded 1.5 tackles for loss. At times, though, both backers looked lost, something that should cure itself with experience.

Twenty-six first downs and 466 yards of offense. That is what the Cardinal offense amassed during Sunday's contest, and that's with Strong clearly calling off the dogs in the fourth quarter. With Florida, South Carolina (and Marcus Lattimore), Arkansas (and quarterback Tyler Wilson), Missouri (and quarterback James Franklin), and Georgia (and quarterback Aaron Murray) awaiting the 'Cats, the Kentucky defense must show rapid improvement if there is any hope of this football team getting to five or six victories.

Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips said it best, though, when he said after the game about the UK defense, "We just have to get better." Amen to that, brother.

Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!