The Kentucky Wildcat defense did not play well Saturday night against a strong South Carolina Gamecock offense. Kentucky was previously susceptible to power running against Florida's Matt Jones, but optimistic fans had hoped the defense had turned a corner with its performance against Vanderbilt. South Carolina looked in control when electing to use their power running game, and the rush defense is still learning how to maintain proper run fits and keep gap integrity. It did not play well against South Carolina's zone blocking scheme.
When charting UK games this year, I've largely gotten to avoid filling out the "missed tackle" column. Sadly, that won't be the case for the South Carolina game. So far this season, UK has only missed a tackle on approximately 14% of plays. Unofficially, UK missed tackles on 42% of plays in the first quarter, 35% of plays in the second quarter, and 27% in the second half. Percentages far above UK's seasonal average. The majority of these missed tackles are coming from the inside and outside linebackers. As defensive coordinator DJ Elliot pointed out after the game, even when the team lined up correctly they would miss tackles:
Kudos should be given to South Carolina running back Mike Davis. He is an all-SEC running back, who has excellent vision, reads his blocks well, and has the power to run through lazy arm-tackling. If Spurrier had just kept feeding him the ball then the outcome of Saturday's game could have been different. When offenses throw against Kentucky they are playing into hands of UK's defensive strengths: its pass rush and its secondary.
This isn't to disparage UK's defense. Despite Saturday's performance there are several positive take-aways if we look at the season as a whole. Below is how UK's defense has performed against its opponents compared to their seasonal average.
|Team||Rush Yards Against UK||Pass Yards Against UK||Avg. Rush Yards Per Game||Avg. Pass Yards Per Game|
UK has held its opponents under its season average in six areas (UK held Florida to its season average of 189 yards rushing if you don't count the 48 yards accumulated during triple overtime). UK has easily held every opponent except for Ohio - when UK played a lot of back-ups - below its season average throwing the ball. It's done the same against the run for every opponent against South Carolina.
The schedule is going to get tougher, and UK is bound to give up more yards, but a reason for optimism is the amount of turnovers UK's defense is forcing. UK has caused 13 turnovers in 5 games, and 7 were against SEC competition making UK one of the best teams in the SEC. This is important because turnovers erase mistakes along with total yards. Giving up 70 yards on a drive is wiped out if you force a fumble at the end.
This fact is no more obvious than the three turnovers caused by UK against Carolina which led to victory. The first by AJ Stamps in the first half stopped a Carolina drive, and set up a UK field goal in the final seconds to end the half. The second was Bud Dupree's interception return for a TD. The third was by Ashely Lowery on Carolina's last drive sealing the victory.
These are UK's opponents Rushing S&P+ rankings prior to Saturday's games (UK's defensive Rush S&P+ was ranked 29th but should take a sizable hit after Saturday):
|Team||Offensive Rush S&P+ Ranking (as of 9/27)|
It is troubling that South Carolina's rushing offense was only ranked 57th prior to the UK game. As UK fans we would want it to be Top 10 to justify how UK's rush defense performed. Now maybe Mike Davis' nagging injuries or inconsistent offensive line play caused the ranking to be lower than it should. Or maybe that's what a 57th ranked rushing offense looks like. In the games above, UK only has clear advantages against UL-Monroe and Tennessee's rushing attacks.
Regardless as to whether Carolina is underrated or not, improvement is necessary for the schedule ahead. I'm increasingly optimistic about this team's ceiling given their fight, their performances compared to opponent's season averages, and the coaching acumen backing them up. The only rushing attacks that I don't feel good about UK's chances are Mississippi State and Georgia. UK will need to force turnovers to beat those two teams. Everything after that should be competitive given the current trajectory.