Third-down continues to haunt Cats' D

Kentucky opponents are converting 51 percent of their third-down conversions this season, a staggering figure which has the coaches and players baffled...

LEXINGTON, Ky. --- The numbers are beyond staggering:

n Total defense: 482 yards per game; 112th of 116 Division I teams.

n Rushing defense: 190.2 yards per game; 88th nationally.

n Passing defense: 291.8 yards per game; 111th nationally.

n Scoring defense: 35.5 points per game; 106th nationally.

All too often this season, the UK defense has been a step slow on third-down situations, such as this Florida touchdown by Jabar Gaffney against CBs Derek Tatum (21) and Leonard Burress (27).

Yet as bad as those figures appear, Kentucky defensive coordinator John Goodner can't help but wonder what the big picture would look like if he could simply get his Cats off the field more often.

"When you're 1-5, it's never like you planned," he said after Wednesday's practice at the Nutter Center. "We're a long way from where we need to be. The kids are working hard, but we're making a ton of mistakes... I think we've made some progress from time to time, but I go back to every darn ballgame: we've got to find a way to get off the field on third down.

"If we could just make a play here and there... We're better than what we've shown."

Ahab had his white whale; the Cats have third down stops.

Through six games, opponents' success rate on third down against Kentucky is an almost unthinkable 50.6 percent (44 of 87). The NCAA does not track that category among its team rankings, but UK's figure could possibly rank as one of the worst ever for a Southeastern Conference team.

In last week's 29-25 loss to LSU, the Tigers converted 13 of 19 third down situations on the night and three on a game-winning 12-play, 80-yard drive that broke UK's heart within the final minute of play.

And it's starting to weigh on the Cats, both physically and mentally.

"I think some of it is not having success early in the year on third down, and sometimes we have a subconscious deal," Goodner said. "I'm not trying to be a psychologist, but sometimes when you don't have success, you don't expect success.

"If we can just ever have us a breakthrough game, a game where we can go out and 60 percent of the time get off the field on third downs, we'll be fine from that point on. But we've got to go out and do it. This is the week we've got to do it."

The timing is not exactly ideal. Kentucky (1-5; 0-4) is preparing to face one of the SEC's hottest teams in East co-leader Georgia (4-1; 3-1). The Bulldogs enter the matchup on a three-game winning streak, including an eye-opening 26-24 triumph at Tennessee.

For the Cats to have any realistic chance, the defense must take a monumental step forward, especially in the latter stages of the game. The UK staff left two of its last three league games feeling like they had an opportunity to win had the defense come up with a handful of key plays.

Against Ole Miss, Kentucky had rallied from a 14-point deficit to pull within 35-31 with 7:39 remaining. The Commonwealth Stadium crowd was energized as then-backup quarterback Jared Lorenzen came off the bench to engineer two straight scoring drives.

The Rebels took possession on their own 26-yard line and quickly marched the length of the field to put the game away on an Eli Manning touchdown pass. During that drive, Manning completed all three of his pass attempts for a total of 63 yards.

And then last week against LSU, the Cats had not surrendered a point for 31:03 of play until Rohan Davey's 6-yard pass to Michael Clayton at the :13 mark. Earlier on that drive, UK surrendered a 14-yard gain on third-and-4, an 18-yard gain on second-and-19, and the game-winning touchdown on third-and-6.

"We've had a chance to win some games in the fourth quarter, and defensively, we just haven't gotten the job done," Goodner said. "I told our kids in the Ole Miss game, if we stop them, we're going to win the ballgame. I really believe that. And there's no doubt about it the other night (against LSU)...

"We've just got to play a whole ballgame. That old adage about a 60-minute ballgame's the truth. You can play 59 minutes and 30 seconds great, but if you don't play the full 60 minutes, you may not win."

Goodner wondered aloud if the Cats were playing aggressive enough in late game situations. He said there's a difference in playing hard, which he cites the players have done, and aggressiveness.

In recent years, some players were relegated to the sidelines for making an aggressive mistake.

"I told them I'm going to be the same guy I always am," he said. "They're never going to have to worry about me jumping on their ass if they make a mistake being aggressive. I want them to be. I want to put them in an atmosphere where they're not afraid to go make a play because if they fail they're going to get benched or get their butt chewed out.

"We're going to chew them out for not playing hard and making mental mistakes, that kind of stuff. If you just get beat physically, to me there's not much you can do about it. If you're better than us and make a play, I'm going to congratulate the other player... But let's don't get beat by being afraid of being timid. Let's go play."

A big topic of discussion following the most recent loss was UK's inability to stop the quick slant pass. Most of the Tigers' key plays came on similar-looking routes, patterns which were run against cushiony UK coverage.

"I don't think we're out of position. We just didn't play leverage right," Goodner said. "Sometimes it's playing a little soft."

Kentucky secondary coach Rick Smith said technique has been part of the problem. Overcoming bad habits, another.

Both occurred on the Tigers' final play in which cornerback Derek Tatum didn't line up far enough inside --- "You make the guy throw the (corner) fade, that's the hardest throw," said Smith --- free safety Anthony Wajda was not close enough to support, and a linebacker who was supposed to blitz did not carry out his assignment.

That was a familiar combination of fatal errors on most of LSU's passing plays that night. Davey completed 27 of 38 attempts for 383 yards and two touchdowns.

"If they throw 10 (slants), you hope you can blow up five of them," he said. "On that last drive (against LSU), we didn't get one of them."

Smith said some of the failures are due to the Cats' continuing adjustment to new coaching techniques. He said his corners can't be completely faulted when they were forbidden to make contact with receivers in previous years.

"I don't know what it is, but from what they've told me, making plays is something you've got to learn over time," Smith said. "When a guy runs a slant in practice and you're never allowed to physically hit him and strip the ball... That's what we're going through right now. I'm having trouble getting my guys to jam them in press man (coverage).

"I went down with them for 10 minutes today of press man, and 50 percent of the time I can't get a corner to jam him with his inside hand. If you jam with your outside hand, you're going to open your hips up, and that guy's going to beat you to the spot... You cover with your feet and hands, and we've got guys looking at the (receiver). It's just little things we've got to keep working on every day."

Goodner said the defensive staff has adjusted its package for the second straight week to simplify some of the aspects the team wasn't executing properly.

"I take full responsibility for how these guys play. They're trying their ass off," Goodner said. "I always go back to that deal, if you've got good kids --- and we really do; they give great effort; nobody wants to win more than we do --- they're not making mistakes on purpose. They either don't understand what we're doing, or we haven't repped it enough. That's what I told them Sunday (during team meetings). We've got to do a better job of coaching, and they've got to do a better job of trying to execute what we're teaching them.

"I know one thing: We're working like hell to get it corrected."

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