From the other side: Vanderbilt's take on Kentucky

As Vanderbilt and Kentucky meet Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium, the storyline is much the same as last year: two teams fighting for respect, with the loser earning the title of the SEC's weakest team. Grim as things have been in 2004 for Vandy, the situation may be even more grim for the Wildcats from Lexington.

Last year on Senior Day in Nashville, Vanderbilt broke a 23-game SEC losing streak with a memorable 28-17 win over Kentucky. The goalposts came down, and for a few hours at least, all looked rosy for the Commodore football program.

But sadly, very little good has happened for either program in the ensuing 12 months. Vanderbilt, of course, has struggled to a disappointing 2-7 record; but grim as things have been for Vandy, the situation may even be more grim for the Wildcats from Lexington. Coach Rich Brooks' team is 1-8, 0-6 in the SEC, with the only win coming at home early in the season over Indiana.

How bad has it gotten for the Wildcats? In the opener they were pummeled by their arch-rival Louisville, 28-0, in a game that looked like a toss-up going in. (Louisville has since shown itself to be a Top 25 team.) In SEC games, Kentucky has been outscored 203-61 (more than 3-to-1!). The high point may have been a close 12-7 loss to South Carolina; but Kentucky also lost 22-7 to a Mississippi State team that Vanderbilt crushed 31-13.

Not that Vandy is without issues of its own, of course. As the two teams meet Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium (noon CT; no TV, 104.5 The Zone), the storyline is much the same as last year: two teams fighting for respect, with loser earning and probably deserving the title of the SEC's worst team of 2004. The Commodores have lost 17 straight road games (dating back to a win at Duke in 2001), and 15 straight conference road games (dating back to a 1999 win at South Carolina).

Some may not realize that head coaches Bobby Johnson and Rich Brooks have a history with each other. When Brooks was the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in the 1990's, as the story goes, the Falcons used the facilities at Furman for their preseason training camp. In return, Brooks allowed Johnson and the Furman coaches complete access to their planning sessions, and the two staffs picked each others' brains often. Was the knowledge gained of any value in last year's 28-17 Vanderbilt victory? Who knows, but Johnson now holds a 1-0 edge in head-to-head meetings.

Having played the past eight straight weeks without a break, the beleaguered Wildcats are about as beaten up as a team could be at this point in the season. Even before last week's humbling 62-17 loss to Georgia, Kentucky had lost LB Dustin Williams, CB Bo Smith, RB Tony Dixon, and receivers Tommy Cook and Keenan Burton to injuries. But against the Dawgs, UK lost receiver John Logan, TE Jeremiah Drobney, and maybe even defensive end Sweet Pea Burns (the Wildcats' one legitimate All-SEC player).

But the carnage doesn't stop there. Questionable this week are backup quarterback Andre Woodson (sprained ankle), DE Ellery Moore (sprained ankle), CB Earven Flowers (hip pointer), and reserve CB Warren Wilson (knee, bruised sternum). Sheesh! You wouldn't wish that on your worst enemy.

Vanderbilt's defense hasn't stopped anybody all year, not even I-AA Eastern Kentucky, which rolled up 460 yards of offense. But Kentucky's offense is one the Commodores ought to be able to keep in check-- or at least, so one would think. Out of 117 NCAA teams, UK ranks No. 116 in total offense (268.7 yards per game), and No. 115 in scoring (14.2 point per game). Throw out the aberrant 51-32 win over Indiana, and the Cats only score 9.6 points.

Yes fans, Jared Lorenzen has finally left Kentucky, and the Cats have had to find a less corpulent signal-caller. Shane Boyd (6-2, 228), a senior who played second-fiddle to Lorenzen for most of his career, was handed the controls and has started every game but one for UK this season. A shifty, nimble quarterback (whom Woody Widenhofer once tried unsuccessfully to recruit), Boyd (right, photo by Getty Images) averages 129 yards passing and 32 yards rushing per game, with an 89.14 efficiency rating.

But Brooks became disenchanted with Boyd late in the Georgia game and replaced him with Andre Woodson, who's more of a dropback passer. Even though it was late in the game with the outcome already decided, Woodson (6-5, 230) led Kentucky to a pair of scores and was by far the more impressive. Saturday is Senior Day and Boyd should get the starting call against Vandy, but Woodson should see action provided he's not too gimpy.

The Wildcats throw for 168 yards per game and rush for a measly 102. As it has always done even back to the Hal Mumme days, Kentucky utilizes a bevy of receivers. The ones who are still healthy and most likely to see action are Glenn Holt (6-3, 215), Scott Mitchell (6-3, 215) and Gerad Parker (6-3, 205). The Wildcats have thrown only 5 touchdown passes all season.

To put it bluntly, Kentucky has been downright atrocious all season running the football. Boyd is the team's leading rusher with 258 yards this season. True freshman Rafael Little (5-11, 195) should start at tailback, and is just as big a threat catching the ball out of the backfield as he is running it. Of note: no Kentucky rusher has run for more than 100 yards since the win over Indiana.

On defense, the picture is almost as bleak for UK. A porous Wildcat defense has allowed opponents 414 yards per game, 233 on the ground. A defense that wasn't all that solid to begin with has been decimated by injuries and has gotten worse each of the last few weeks. The best player left on the unit is probably Muhammad Abdullah, who leads the team with three interceptions. Abdullah (6-0, 205) moved from free safety to strong safety two games ago after starting strong safety Mike Williams was suspended.

Taylor Begley is solid in the placekicking department. The junior has hit 8-of-11 field goals, including a 51-yarder and a 52-yarder, and has successfully converted 71 consecutive PAT's.

The scouting report says the Commodores ought to be able to both pass and run on a crippled-up Wildcat defense. One would expect Vandy to test the secondary early in the game and try to hit some big plays. The ideal situation would be for Vandy to build a comfortable lead and rest Jay Cutler, who's been struggling with a sprained ankle, for the Tennessee game.

But nothing has come easy all season for the Commodores, and to presume anything but a tough battle in this hostile environment would be a mistake. Against the superior defenses of LSU and Florida, and with Cutler sitting out big portions of both games, the Vandy offense scored only 7 and 10 points. Vandy has improved greatly since early in the season in the area of eliminating turnovers, but still has trouble converting on short yardage and still has a bad tendency to bog down in the red zone.

When Kentucky has the ball, the defensive strategy will vary according to which UK quarterback is playing. Boyd is the kind of quarterback that keeps defenses honest with the occasional quarterback keeper or option play. But when Woodson is in, it's probably time to unveil some blitzes in an effort to rattle a less-experienced signal caller.

I fully expect Vanderbilt to win this game and snap its road losing streaks, but not without a fight. The intangibles all favor Kentucky. For starters there's the revenge motive, and when seniors realize they are playing their last game on their home turf, strange and amazing things sometimes happen.

Expect the Big Blue to keep the game close, but the Commodores are unquestionably the deeper team. Unless something strange happens in the turnover department, Vandy should pull away in the second half and escape with a 10- to 15-point win. (And if not? Oh well, basketball season is nearly at hand.)

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