What is this… How you say… defense? I have followed Kentucky football closely for the last 25 years, and I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've seen a Wildcat defense not only stop an opponent consistently like UK did in the first half, but also confuse the guys on the other side of the ball. (And I would probably still have a couple of fingers unaccounted.) Most of the rare strong defensive showings in the past have revolved around a bend-but-don't-break refrain, but this unit was playing aggressive and, at times, imposing its will on the Heisman hopeful Teddy Bridgewater and the Cards' potent offense. Louisville's first six offensive possessions resulted in four 3-and-outs, a fumble and a field goal. That is exactly what UK thought it was getting when it lured Mark Stoops from Tallahassee. The defensive improvement that that Cats have shown between their first game of the season and the third game has been pretty remarkable. If the unit can stay healthy as it navigates the grueling SEC schedule, one can only wonder what kind of potential it holds.
You're My Boy, Blue: The player with the most appropriate name in Kentucky sports history is quickly becoming a fan favorite and perhaps the explosive player on the roster. Junior college transfer Javess Blue caught six passes for 58 yards on Saturday and added another 134 yards to his all-purpose total via five kickoff returns. He's now averaging 13.1 yards per reception and 25.1 yards per kickoff return. It's been somewhat rare at UK to have junior college players deliver instant results, especially at receiver. They've all taken time to adjust to the differences in the juco and SEC levels. Even someone as talented as Stevie Johnson, now a star with the NFL's Buffalo Bills, took more than half of his first season in Lexington to hit his stride. Blue is way ahead of schedule and could wind up being one of the SEC's most productive receivers if he keeps up this pace.
Up-Kempo Offense: After their freshman running back came off the bench to produce 80 yards rushing on only five carries, both Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown said that they must find more ways to get JoJo Kemp involved with the gameplan moving forward. The DeLand (Fla.) product has more explosiveness than the two players ahead of him on the depth chart, Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George, although he doesn't have their experience and trust level in pass protection just yet. The Cats may have to sacrifice some of those things in order to get the payoff from his big-play ability.
Tailgating Scene: Nothing quite like a sun-splashed fall afternoon with crisp temperatures and a rivalry game. As I entered the stadium grounds Saturday, I saw some of the best tailgating scenes I've witnessed in a long time at UK. Last year, it was depressing to walk in and see those same tents and grills with a few sad faces waiting for the inevitable loss that would come a few hours later. Many of Saturday's tailgates had a mixed party of blue- and red-clad fans. One guy I spotted had a half-and-half shirt with Cards on the front and Cats on the back. Many couples featured a blue husband and red wife, or vice versa. When you get past the nonsense you encounter on call-on radio and message boards between the two fan bases, you learn it's really the same group of people.
Dropitis: We all thought the UK offense had been cured of its pass-dropping pox with a new season and new talent joining the unit, but it had a relapse at the worst possible time Saturday. The Cats dropped at least a half-dozen catchable balls (arguably more) including one potential touchdown and another that may have set up a score. Countless drives were either hindered or stopped by drops. With as well as the defense was playing early, one can only wonder what might have developed if the UK passing game was on point in this one.
Key Injury: It's sometimes staggering how taking one piece out of 11 can impact a football team. On Saturday, that piece was Donte Rumph. When he was on the field, the Cats were giving the Cards fits. After the burly defensive tackle went down midway through the first half, however, it was a different story. Louisville rushed for only 62 yards on 20 carries (3.1 ypc) in the first half. The Cards rushed for 190 yards on 21 carries (9.0 ypc) in the second half and eventually wore down what had been an outstanding UK defense. Since Rumph was coming off an injury in the spring, one has to be concerned about his ability to stay healthy and how that might affect the rest of the Cats' season. None of the other defensive tackles have the physical presence that Rumph provides. The only one who does, fellow senior Mister Cobble, has not been very effective in two of the first three games.
Situational Play-Calling/Checks: Multiple times in the game, UK faced a third-and-1 (or less) situation and failed to convert. The Cats actually finished 0-for-13 on third down in the game, but the worst of the failures were when UK opted to line up in a shotgun formation needing less than a yard. I'm not sure if those calls came from the sideline or from the quarterbacks seeing something and checking into it at the line of scrimmage, but I don't quite understand the rationale of asking a player to pick up 6 or 7 yards when he only needs a few inches. UK has a big, athletic fullback in D.J. Warren. I like my chances better with handing it to him than the quarterback hoping to find a hole. One of those plays resulted in Jalen Whitlow fumbling at his own 31 and setting up Louisville's field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
No Flips: Landon Foster found his way into the "Good" section of last week's edition, but lands on the other side of the ledger this week, averaging less than 40 yards per punt and never quite assisting the UK defense by flipping the field on Saturday. The worst punt came at a really bad time. After the UK offense had been stopped at its own 18 yard line midway through the second quarter of a 3-3 defensive battle, Foster needed a booming kick. Instead, he shanked one off the side of his foot for 34 yards. The Cardinals took over at midfield and responded with a short drive for the game's first touchdown at the 2:36 mark.
UK Uniforms: Here's hoping the Cats shelve the Blue-Black-Blue combo permanently. Monumentally ugly. Working in some black is fine, but wear 'em with the black or white britches, please. Speaking of which... Where are those gray unis and helmets?
By The Numbers:
0 – UK toes left. To be clear, Louisville is the better team and deserved to win Saturday. But the Cards were also ripe for upset, and the Cats played a large role in allowing them to escape Commonwealth with a W by constantly shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers and dropped passes and questionable decisions. Kentucky is not talented enough to overcome those kind of mistakes this season. If the Cats have any hope of winning a couple SEC games, they need to be the smartest, cleanest team in the league.
5.8 – The average yards per pass attempt gained by the Cats. That's not going to cut it. UK must show the ability to "go vertical" more often in this offense. The Cats tried a few times, but the connection wasn't there. The most costly was when Max Smith missed a wide-open Ryan Timmons two or three steps behind the UofL defense that would have been a crowd-energizing 57-yard TD in the first quarter.
116 – The Cards ran only one more play than the Cats did on this day (69-68) but finished with 116 more yards in total offense.
34:36 – The offense's inability to sustain drives led to a substantial time of possession figure for Louisville and ultimately led to the UK defense wearing down.