After the moral victory of not losing to Alabama by 50 points, Mark Stoops and the Kentucky Wildcats have to put a real victory on the board against the Vanderbilt Commodores. Last year's loss to the Commodores was one of the most demoralizing points of last year. Stoops has even said that it will bother him for the rest of his life.
It effectively put a nail in the coffin of the Wildcat's bowl bid hopes. This would have been win number five for the Cats, and they would have clinched the bowl bid the next week versus Charlotte. Now, the Commodores make their way to Commonwealth Stadium, and you can expect the ghost of Les Miles to haunt Stoops if the Wildcats do not win this game.
Vanderbilt comes in with a 2-2 record, and this game is a must win for Derek Mason as well. Both Mark Stoops and Mason are feeling the heat, and both have taken over a bigger control over their defenses. While important to both teams, these Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt games are never pretty.
Let's meet the Commodores.
Quarterback Kyle Shurmur is a former four-star recruit and the son of a former NFL head coach and offensive coordinator. The pedigree is there; the stats have not been. The sophomore has completed just 51.5% of his passes for 696 yards and 3 TD and 3 INT. He's had dreadful games against South Carolina and Florida ( a combined 17-47 for 155 yards and an interception) and just 5.35 yards per passing attempt. To make matters worse for Vandy, he left the Florida game with an injury and may not see action.
If Shurmur can not go, Junior Wade Freebeck will get the call. He is just 6-13 for 77 yards and an interception on the season. His one TD versus 7 INT ratio for his career will have Kentucky's defensive backs licking their chops.
Look for a healthy dose of Ralph Webb and the ground game. Webb already has 582 yards rushing and 5 TD on the season. He is carrying the ball for 4.9 yards per carry average and is an occasional threat to catch some passes out of the backfield, especially on third down He had an impressive 110 yards on the ground against Florida last week. Khari Blasingame has been used as the fullback, and he gets a lot of carries. He has 158 yards on the season and 3 TD. This duo gets most of the carries for Vandy.
While Vandy had some talent at WR returning, freshman Kalija Lipscomb surprisingly leads this unit. His 14 receptions for 189 yards is not impressive for four games, but he has scored twice. CJ Duncan was injured last year, but he has 12 catches for 141 yards. Caleb Scott is averaging 21.6 yards per reception on five catches, but those numbers are a bit inflated due to a 66-yard reception. Trent Sherfield, who led this team with 51 catches for 659 yards last year has just eight catches for 86 yards this year. Freshman TE Jared Pinkney has eight grabs for 97 yards.
This Vanderbilt offense is averaging 20.2 points a game, but 78 of their 101 points came against MTSU and WKU. Vandy was able to just put up 10 points versus South Carolina, seven against Georgia Tech, and ^ versus the Gators. Despite what you would think would be a pretty run based offense, half of their first downs have been by passing.
As always, the heart of the Commodores is their defense. Their two best performances have been against teams that Kentucky has already played in South Carolina and Florida. They allowed just 10 and 6 points. It's somewhat a mystery as this defense has also allowed 24 points to MTSU, 38 to Georgia Tech and 30 to WKU.
The Commodores have a very experienced defensive line, but they are not consistent in getting to the quarterback. Adam Butler does have two sacks and four tackles for a loss to lead the unit. Jonathan Wynn has six tackles. Nifae Lealao and Jay Woods both played in all 12 games this year and add a lot of experience.
LB Zach Cunningham is following up on last year's All-SEC Defensive Team honors with another solid season. He has 52 tackles and has 8.5 tackles for a loss in the backfield. The line does a great job opening holes for him to wreck havoc. Ja'karri Thomas has 22 tackles and does a good job of wrapping runners up. Nigel Bowden was injured last season and adds 14 tackles.
Torren McGaster is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC and has 28 tackles. He has also broken up four passes and defended four others. LaDarius Wiley is all over the field with 33 tackles. FS Oren Burks has two sacks and an interception to go along with his 21 tackles. Both Burks and Taurean Ferguson do a fantastic job of blanketing their receivers, and they both lead the team with five passes broken up, and six passes defended.
This is one of the top defensive backfields in the SEC, but opposing teams have been able to throw on them at times. They are giving up 248.6 yards per game which is something of a mystery.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
Make no mistake; this game is not going to be pretty, but it is a game that Kentucky should win. Opposing teams are able to gain 160 yards a game on this Vanderbilt defense and the Commodores do not put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. Look for Benny Snell to get involved early and he and Boom Williams to take over the game in the second half.
Stephen Johnson has one task for this game: protect the ball. He does not have to have a big passing game to win and should be able to make some plays with his legs. This could be a good game for CJ Conrad.
In short, this game is about redemption for Mark Stoops and last years team. The performance last year against Vanderbilt is a big reason that the tide turned on Mark Stoops and his seat started to get a little warm. It was easily one of the worst performances the Wildcats have turned in over the last decade, and that is saying something. While a win over the Commodores is not going to have the fans burning couches in Lexington, it will even the record at 3-3 heading into the bye week and keep the goal of a bowl alive.
I'm never happy with losing by 28 points, but a lot of what happened against Alabama was not the fault of the defense. There are still way too many missed tackles, but Stoops has done a good job of bringing this defense around after the first half against New Mexico State. Vanderbilt is the worst passing offense that Kentucky has faced and Westry and Baity could make some big plays. Like the South Carolina game, the Vandy offense is an offense that the Wildcats should be able to control. In an "let's erase the memory of 2015" game, I'm calling this one 21-13 for the Wildcats.