Make no mistake, the Kentucky Wildcats let one get away from them last week and lost a game they should have won. It's frustrating, yes. It's disappointing, yes. But the hope for the season is not gone. With a win on the road against the Vanderbilt Commodores, Kentucky can do something they have not done since the 2006 season: win four SEC games.
While that may pale in comparison to other teams in the SEC, it is what passes for an accomplishment for Kentucky football. And they have a good chance to do that against a team that is winless in the SEC in the Vanderbilt Commodores.
In the past, Vanderbilt has been the ultimate spoiler team for many teams, often wrecking bowl hopes and causing chaos when they beat a fellow SEC team. Last season was a perfect example. They knocked off Georgia, Tennessee, and Ole Miss and still finished 3-5 in the SEC and 6-7 with a bowl loss. In a familiar refrain heard around the Bluegrass, however, this would be the year for Vandy football.
After a 3-0 start, which included a win over then #18 Kansas State, the Commodores appeared to be a challenger for the SEC, and there was buzz ( at least among Commodore fans) they could pull an upset over Alabama. That did not happen as the Tide rolled 59-0 and the Commodores have been a mess in the SEC.
The Commodores have been fairly dreadful in the SEC, going 0-5 and getting outscored 233-100 for a 46.6 to 20 average. A win over WKU last week stopped that slide and put the Commodores back in the discussion for a bowl game, at least for a moment. The Wildcats face a desperate team on the road on Saturday. This has historically not been a good thing for Kentucky.
Let's meet the Commodores.
After seemed like years of waiting for Commodores fans, the offense under Kyle Shurmur seemed to take off at the end of last season. That joy was short lived as the offense seems to have reverted back to the traditional style of Commodores offense, which is akin to driving a 1995 Camaro. It's clunky and rough going for the most part, but every now and then, everything clicks and you zoom past the speed limit.
Kyle Shurmur, for the most part, has improved this season. He still is not an accurate passer, completing just 55.9% of his passes for 1.884 yards. He does have 20 TDs against just 3 INTs, which is a ratio that anyone would take and he has cut down on the number of sacks he has taken from 32 last year to 11 this year. While he is consistent, he can still exploit bad defensive backfields, and he could have a big day versus Kentucky.
The big question about the Commodores offense has been about the running game and the offensive line's inability to block for Ralph Webb, Webb, who had back to back 1,000-yard seasons, has just 543 yards rushing and a 3.9 yard per carry average. Last year, Webb rushed for 13 TDs on a 5.1-yard clip. He has just six this year. There are signs that Webb may be finding his groove, however. In two of his past three games, he has rushed for 163 yards against Ole Miss and 104 against WKU. Sandwiched in between those was a 31 yard game against South Carolina.
Likewise, Khari Blasingame's numbers have suffered the same downward trend as Webb. Blasingame has yet to dent the end zone on the ground this year, after having 10 rushing touchdowns last season. He does have one receiving TD however. He has also gone from 449 yards last year and a 4.6 yard per carry clip to just 147 and 3.3.
Shurmur has a pretty experienced and deep receiving corp that is led by Trent Sherfield, who has 32 catches for 540 yards and 3 TDs. Kalija Lipscomb has improved off an impressive freshman campaign and has 440 yards receiving and leads the corps with 6 TD catches. CJ Duncan has 4 TD grabs, and while he was expected to have a big year, Caleb Scott is still a dangerous option, even though he has disappointed this year.
This is not the Vanderbilt defense of old. The Commodores are giving up a very un-Vandy like 29.2 points per game and teams are running against them to the tune of 211.6 yards per game and 5.1 yards per rush. Opposing teams have scored 23 touchdowns on the ground against the Commodores. The pass defense is better, allowing 191.3 yards a game. It is still a bit odd to see a Vanderbilt defense that allows north of 400 yards a game and 5.7 yards a play.
Dare Odeyingbo and Nifae Lealao have been the leaders on the defensive line that has been inconsistent this year. Odeyingbo has 28 tackles and 3.5 sacks and does a good job of getting into the backfield with eight tackles for a loss. More was expected of Lealo, but he has 16 tackles and does a good job of covering the pass. Jonathan Wynn has 19 tackles and 3of them for a loss.
The Vandy linebacking corp had some big shoes to fill, mainly those of Zach Cunningham. Oren Brooks has stepped up and has 62 tackles, and 5.5 of them have been for a loss. Charles Wright does a great job of getting after the quarterback with eight sacks and another six quarterback hurries. Jordan Griffin has six tackles for a loss while Emmanuel Smith is a solid pass defender and has 53 tackles.
The defensive backfield is by far the strongest part of the defense, and there could be as many as five seniors on the field at times. Safety LaDarius Wiley is all over the field with 73 tackles and an interception. Ryan White has two interceptions and four tackles for a loss to go along with 50 tackles. The cornerbacks do a great job of disrupting receivers. Trey Herndon has nine passes broken up, and nine passes defended. JoeJuan Williams has 8 of each.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
More likely than not, if you follow the history of the Kentucky vs Vanderbilt football games, this will be an ugly game to watch and a grind it out affair.
That is what Vandy usually does. They are good enough to ugly up a game and keep it close through three quarters and manage to have a chance to win the game. And there is nothing wrong with that. Even though they are way over-recruited, Vandy has managed to stay in most of their games, and they are the team that no one wants to play and opposing fan bases are often mad after, even with a win. This applies to most SEC schools not named Alabama.
Granted, Vandy does not seem to be that historically pesky team this year. The defense is at it's worst level in years, and they have been getting blown out.
The big area of concern is the Vandy offense and Kentucky defense. The sight of the blue-clad defense have inspired Herculean performances from moribund offenses this year, and the Commodores offense has just been starting to click lately. The Commodores have scored 35 points against Ole Miss, 27 against South Carolina and 31 versus WKU. So I can see why Kentucky fans are concerned going to Nashville with this defense.
I also know that Kentucky fans are concerned anytime that Kentucky goes on the road and Mark Stoops is 0-2 in Nashville. Granted, Stoops has also won two games on the road in South Carolina, so we should not automatically expect bad things to happen when Kentucky football goes on the road.
I actually expect a good effort from Kentucky this week. The players have had their pride damaged and a loss this week will damage what had been a very good season for them. Look for an inspired Wildcats performance and a 31-21 Kentucky win in Nashville.