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UPON FURTHER REVIEW: South Carolina

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The UFR series is my detached thoughts following a rewatch and charting of the previous game.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

One of the odder themes under the Mark Stoops regime is UK’s defense has never really shown much beyond marginal improvement year-to-year. This season appeared like a massive decline was underway after three games. Their performance Saturday night against South Carolina was notable enough to restore some confidence going forward, and deserves further attention on a night when the offense played well too.

The Numbers

Just how well did the defense play Saturday night? In 2015, the defense allowed on average 5.5 yards per play which was 12th in the SEC. Overall, UK only allowed 3.9 yards per play on 11 South Carolina possessions, and on only three of those possessions did South Carolina even make it past the UK 40 yard-line. The Gamecocks would finish with a success rate of 36%.

For comparison’s sake, New Mexico State crossed the 40 on seven occasions, had 16 possessions, and also had a success rate of 49%. That’s a huge swing in the ‘Cats favor.

The defense forced a punt or a turnover on downs a gob-smacking nine times against South Carolina. That’s always going to be impressive against a SEC opponent regardless of their offense.

Heavy Reliance on Youth

Don’t look now, but UK is averaging 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks per game. Both those numbers are good for middle of the pack in the SEC. Meanwhile, the defense is fourth in the SEC in passes defended per game. Again, hardly revelatory but it is a base to build upon.

Even more so when most statistical categories are led by underclassmen still learning their way. For example, sophomore Jordan Jones accounts for 15% of the teams tackles, and sophomore Mike Edwards is next with 10%. The team relies on sophomores at corner, and the two most disruptive linemen are sophomore Joshua Allen and redshirt sophomore Denzil Ware combing for six sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss in four games.

The odds the defense maintains something close to this production going forward increases if two things happen. First, UK must continue to improve on third down. 51% is astronomically high, and a number around 38% would improve on last season and be middle of the pack in the SEC. They must execute better on this down - plain and simple.

Second, UK’s offense must maintain possession, and by extension limited the possessions of the other team’s offense. UK’s defense is not strong enough to compete in a high possession games, according to the first three games of the season. This defense’s best friend will be the running attack of their offensive teammates grinding the clock away while they swill Gatorade on the bench with their feet up.

It’s Not Scheme

South Carolina’s offense is not great by any metric. Even so, neither is New Mexico State’s or Southern Miss.’ offenses which torched UK this season. So, what happened?

A daisy chain of simplicity: improved fundamentals, effort, and execution. The unit was motivated from the outset, and they played hard and smart throughout. For the first time in two years, UK’s defense played well without even forcing a turnover to get off the field. They actually forced punts.

As previously mentioned, the problems with the defense aren’t insurmountable, and do not have to do with scheme as I concluded after the Florida game:

The team climbing to 2-2 could provide renewed focus and hope. Winning still cures most wounds. The mistakes listed above are very fixable, and this team has the talent, but “Will they play like it?” is the quotidian question.

The one minor tweak I noticed from Saturday night is UK tended to stay in its base 3-4 package even when South Carolina would go four-wide. Normally, UK would shift to its nickel package in those situations, but UK decided to play South Carolina straight up, and trusted it would win the personnel battles on more instances than normal.

That advantage won’t always be the case, and even in the second half UK went to the nickel package more often, probably after having more faith in the front seven to stop the run minus a box defender.

Effort

On this early play, Matt Elam correctly diagnoses a screen (this example could just as easily be in the Execution section), and shows how fast the 340-pounder can move when he’s motivated. This is not the Elam of two weeks ago who gave a poor effort against Florida. If he tackled better this would have been a great play, but don’t underestimate the impact his effort has on his teammates watching the giant bound after the ball-carrier.

It was at this moment in the game when I started to experience an alien emotion: hope. The defense was focused, and Elam was the bellwether.

Fundamentals

As I’ve previously written, this defense is averaging about 16 missed tackles per game this season. The last two seasons, that number was about eight missed tackles per game. This is probably a reason the coaches have decided on using Mondays and Tuesdays during the practice week to hone on fundamentals of which tackling is one. The work may have begun to pay off as I charted UK having ten missed tackles against South Carolina (with four coming in the second quarter which was easily the defense’s worst quarter).

One aspect of tackling is not only wrapping up, but also taking proper angles. A fleet of foot, head-hunting linebacker does little good if he never interdicts the ball-carrier. The angles were much better against South Carolina.

Denzil Ware was named the SEC Defensive Lineman of the week for earning five tackles and two sacks. Here is one of several great plays he made last weekend that also involved taking a good angle.

On 3rd-and-10, a scrambling Brandon McIiwain is flushed from the pocket, and Ware adjust mid-trajectory to take a better pursuit angle to stop him well short of the first down. When that play started Ware was in pass coverage, and after reading the quarterback scramble, he shot upfield at a sub-optimal angle, adjusted his trajectory, and then made the solo tackle in the open field. A very impressive play that displayed several of his attributes.

Execution

Defensive end Alvonte Bell struggled versus the zone read previously against New Mexico State and Florida. He would bite on the hand-off to the running back, and then the quarterback would pull the ball, and he’d be left in the dust. The lack of defenders behind him suggest he was not assigned the running back, but was meant to slow-play the quarterback. He was not executing his role.

Against South Carolina he played the zone read well on multiple occasions (I don’t think its coincidental they targeted him with the play). Here is the first of at least two with the second coming on a critical third down late in the third quarter.

Bell doesn’t bite on the fake, slow plays the quarterback, and buys time for his teammates to help clean up the play. This tackle for loss will go to his teammates, but Bell doing his job was the reason it happened.

There was also better execution on blitzes. Below UK blitzes Denzil Ware and Chris Westry hoping to overload the left side of the South Carolina protection. It works and they get to the quarterback quickly.

Brandon McIlwain correctly attempts a pass to the receiver where the rush originated from, but Jordan Jones and Blake McClain are already heading towards the receiver anticipating the pass to the quarterback’s HOT route. If the receiver had caught it, he was going to get rocked. The pressure helped cause an overthrow preventing brain trauma on at least one play.

Conclusion

Saturday night was an impressive performance even against a bad South Carolina offense. UK’s previous performances against similarly ranked offenses did not go nearly as well, plus they did not benefit from forcing even one turnover to get off the field.

UK is still allowing 35 points per game which is eight points higher than last season. In other words, the defense needs to string together several more of these performances together before faith can be fully restored. We should know in a few weeks.

For now, watch if the defense continues to fight and display effort regardless of the score against Alabama for all four quarters. There are two games being played next Saturday against The Tide’s offense. One is on the scoreboard, but the other isn’t measured in points, and it’s the second one that is a better barometer for the prospect of defensive improvement this season.

Hopefully the team comes back from The Tilt in Tuscaloosa physically intact and mentally stronger.