Four Downs: Grading the Kentucky Wildcats at the midpoint of the season

Kentucky opens the second half of its season on Saturday at Mississippi State after navigating the first half of the schedule with a 4-2 record and aspirations to reach a bowl game for the first time since the 2010 season. In this edition of AllWildcats' "Four Downs," we hand out midterm grades for the Big Blue.


It's been a mixed bag for the Wildcats in their first season under new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, which should be somewhat expected anytime you have a significant change in leadership and scheme. At times, UK has looked really dangerous on the offensive side of the ball. When Patrick Towles is on his game, particularly from an accuracy standpoint, and Stanley "Boom" Williams is chewing up big chunks of yardage in the ground game, the Cats are formidable. But when either one of those components is missing, inconsistency has been king. Thus, one-possession margins of victory against non-conference opponents like Louisiana-Lafayette and Eastern Kentucky and a frustrating 14-9 loss to Florida with a chance to end the Gators' 28-year winning streak. Kentucky also had dropped touchdown passes in each of the SEC losses to date and could easily be sitting at 6-0 now had those plays been made. Entering the second half of the season, the Cats rank ninth in scoring offense (26.2 ppg), 10th in the SEC in total offense (387.5 ypg), fifth in passing offense (252 ypg), 12th in rushing offense (135.5 ypg). The scoring is actually down from last season when the Cats posted 29.2 points per game, so it's tough to give anything better than a C-minus here. I look for UK to improve this mark over the final six games of the regular season. 


Despite losing both of its defensive ends to the NFL Draft, Kentucky has compensated nicely as three years of strong recruiting under Mark Stoops has led to significant improvements on the side of the ball that has haunted the Wildcats for ages. The Cats are tied for ninth in SEC scoring defense (23.2 ppg) this season after finishing 13th a year ago at 31.2. If that holds up over the final six games, it will rank third among biggest one-year turnarounds for UK since 1946. Josh Forrest is having another outstanding season at middle linebacker, Cory Johnson has emerged as a big playmaker at defensive tackle, J.D. Harmon has come up with some of the biggest individual plays of the season in the secondary, and Chris Westry has future star written all over him at corner. The defense was largely responsible for both SEC wins over South Carolina and Missouri. The lone knocks on this year's unit are a lack of pressure on the quarterback (11 sacks) and forced turnovers. The Cats have taken the ball away only seven times in six games. They've gone 13 quarters without an interception. As a result, UK is at minus-1 as a team in turnover margin. That needs to improve dramatically if UK is to secure bowl eligibility and wind up in an attractive postseason game.


This was expected to be an area of strength for the Cats entering the 2015 season, but special teams have not been as solid as they were last year. On a positive note, Austin MacGinnis has hit eight of his nine field goal attempts. He did miss a PAT in the season opener against ULL that could have been disastrous, but the Cats were able to overcome it. On kickoffs, UK has the second-fewest touchbacks (8) in the league, but the coverage unit has been very reliable and featured sure tackling. It would be nice, however, to know you can count on forcing the opponent to start at its own 25 in a tight, late-game situation. The return teams still haven't returned a kick or punt for a score in an eternity, but it feels like freshman Sihiem King may be getting close to breaking one. Punting has been a mystery. Landon Foster had a fantastic junior season, averaging 42.6 yards per punt with the opponent pinned inside its own 20 on 27 occasions. This year, his average is down to 40.2 and he's placed only six inside the 20. Lately, he appears to be having a crisis of confidence with some really ugly punts coming off his toe. The team's net average is 36.1, ninth in the SEC. UK has largely gotten away with it to date, but it could loom large in the second half of the season. Or it could be a big weapon if Foster regains his 2014 form.


Outside of a questionable final possession in the 30-27 loss to Auburn, the UK coaching staff hasn't given Big Blue Nation much reason to gripe this season. I would argue that such complaints are probably at an all-time low. There's been some minor nit-picking about lack of reps for backup quarterback Drew Barker and the hit-and-miss use of running back "Boom" Williams and tight end C.J. Conrad, but for the most part, Mark Stoops & Co. have pushed all the right buttons en route to a 4-2 record. That's a mark every UK fan would have taken in a heartbeat if it was offered in the preseason. The Cats won at South Carolina for the first time since 1999, picked up their first win over Mizzou since the Tigers joined the SEC, and are in line to go bowling with a strong finish. Find a way to beat Mississippi State, Tennessee or Georgia -- the three remaining games that the Cats will likely be underdogs -- and this grade starts pushing into A territory. 

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