Remember, this was a unit that allowed 44.3 points and 480 yards per game during the last five games of the 2003 season, dropping three of those contests in the process, including blowouts against Memphis (37-7) and Miami (OH) (49-28).
But under the direction of new defensive coordinator Mike Cassity, the Cardinal defense didn't allow their opponents a touchdown until Army scored just before halftime in last Saturday's 52-21 U of L victory.
One of the key reasons for U of L's early success on defense has been their ability to make stops on third down. In the season opener, Kentucky's offense managed to convert just 4-of-15 third downs; while Bobby Ross' Black Knights converted only 3-of-14 attempts last weekend.
"Defensively, I thought we performed hard and played aggressively," Petrino said of the defenses effort at West Point. "I think we had eight three and outs, which is really good, and I think that's the reason we had so many plays on offense."
Because U of L's defense has been effective getting the ball back for Petrino's explosive offense (A combined 7-of-29 on third down; plus U of L has forced four turnovers on the season), the Cardinals dominated time of possession (35:29 to 24:31 through two games) against both Kentucky and Army, especially in the second half where they outscored the Wildcats and Black Knights by a combined 49-14.
And while Petrino has been pleased with the improvement his defense has shown early in the season, he still sees plenty of room for further improvement, specifically in eliminating big plays.
"We did give up a couple of big plays [against Army]," Petrino said. "A big run and a big pass that we need to make sure we clean up."
"Antoine Sharp gave up the one big pass and that was just a technique deal," continued Petrino. "He didn't break on the ball real well and we need to make sure we keep putting him in that same position because he can make that play in man coverage."
The defense has shown significant improvement in virtually all major statistical categories compared to where they stood through two games last season. They're allowing fewer points (22 to 10), fewer rushing yards (162.5 to 99.5), fewer pssing yards (232.5 to 194.5) and over one hundred fewer total yards (395 to 294). Perhaps that's why Petrino says he's been most pleased with his defenses performance through the first two games.
"I've been most pleased with our defense," Petrino said. "I like the energy and the speed they're showing."
Two of the major reasons for the turn around on defense, according to Petrino, are experience and improved fundamentals. Eight starters returned from last seasons unit and one of the major focuses for Cassity since his arrival last winter was to improve his troops fundamental skills.
"They're all a year more experienced and that helps a tremendous amount," Petrino explained. "Our assignment errors and missed tackles are down and I think our fundamentals are much better. I think they truly beleive in what we're doing and they're playing real hard."
Still, Petrino realizes that it's too early, especially considering the competition, to guage just how much improvement the defense has really made.
"They still haven't really been challenged yet," admitted Petrino. "So we'll see when things aren't going our way how they react to it. When a team drives eighty yards and scores we'll just have to see how they come back the next series. So we still have some questions to answer."
With upcoming games against offensive-minded North Carolina and No. 4 Miami, Petrino will surely find those answers in the very near future.