Last year’s loss in Nashville was easily one of the most- gut-wrenching losses of Mark Stoops’ tenure in Lexington. UK should have been leading 14-0 as the first quarter of that game ended, as it appeared the Cats were clearly the superior team.
But instead, critical mistakes and missed plays by the Cats kept them from taking control of this game early. From there, it was just a comedy of errors which saw the Cats shoot themselves in the foot far too many times and gave Vandy a 21-17 win. In a season where just one more win would have gotten UK to a bowl, the Cats simply this gave this game away.
Now, head coach Mark Stoops is looking for revenge while also keeping his team on track to make a bowl. There is no question this SEC East clash in Commonwealth Stadium Saturday in a must-win game for both schools to keep their bowl hopes alive.
“I feel like our team is getting better in certain phases and we’re continuing to grow,” Stoops said this week. “I thought we showed some better signs defensively this past week in a tough environment at Alabama.
“And hopefully our offense will get back on track this week and again, just looking forward to a great challenge against Vanderbilt. We’ve always had close games and we expect another tough, hard-fought, close game against Coach (Derek) Mason and Vanderbilt here this weekend.”
One of the big stories to watch this week is how Stephen Johnson bounces back from a bad performance at Alabama, but Stoops is confident the former JUCO quarterback bounces back this week.
“I think Stephen’s very resilient,” Stoops said of Johnson. “I knew he was when we recruited him. He has great poise. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t be affected because certainly great defenses in hostile environments have a tendency to affect all quarterbacks for the most part. So, I think how he responds, how he bounces back this week, will be a big indicator for him as he moves forward.”
Beating Vandy this week will involve one big key for UK: Stop Ralph Webb, who leads the SEC and is 14th nationally in rushing yards with 116.4 per game. His 23.6 carries per game are the third-most in the country, and Vandy makes it no secret their offense lives and dies on his shoulders.
“He’s a very, very good player. He gets quality yards,” Stoops said of Webb. “He’s tough to bring down. He’s got good vision, and they’re riding him right now because they’re making it difficult on defenses with the sifting and the motioning and creating extra gaps with some power-run game.
“Then they have a great back like Ralph back there getting tough yards. So, they’ve really kind of settled in. Looks like they have an identity and what they want to be.
The formula of good defense and a good running game has sprung Vandy to some surprising wins under head coach Derek Mason, including last year’s win over UK. That formula is something Stoops knows his young Cats most work to prevent and counter if they hope to come out of Saturday with a win.
“They’re playing good defense. Very opportunistic, creating turnovers. They’re very good, they’re plus-three in the turnover ratio, and he’s obviously protecting the football so they’re doing very good things and Ralph definitely makes it very difficult on defenses.”
Here is everything you’ll need to watch and follow this game.
Vanderbilt Commodores (2-3, 0-2) at Kentucky Wildcats (2-3, 1-2)
Location: Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, KY
Game Time: 4 p.m. ET Saturday
TV: SEC Network
Channels: DirecTV 611, Dish Network 408, and Time Warner Cable 76/796 in Lexington.
Announcers: Dave Neal (play-by-play), Matt Stinchcomb (analyst) and Olivia Harlan (sideline).
Local Radio: UK Radio Network, which features Tom Leach (play-by-play), Jeff Piecoro (analyst) and Dick Gabriel (sideline) on the call on 630 AM and 98.1 FM in Lexington.
Live Online Stream: WatchESPN
Odds: UK is a 3.5-point favorite.
Prediction: If you like defense, this is your kind of game. Points will come at a premium in this matchup, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see more combined punts than points in this matchup.
UK has shown nice improvements in each of the past three games, but the Dores have done just the same with a win over WKU and a narrow loss to Florida. This will be a dogfight that comes down to the final minutes, but in the end, UK has just a little more firepower on offense to get the win and keep their bowl hopes alive.
Final Score: Kentucky 20, Vanderbilt 17