KENTUCKY PASSING DEFENSE
What VU fans are hoping for against Kentucky is that Patton Robinette can take hold of this offense and make it his own. Robinette completed 4-of-5 passes against South Carolina, scoring a touchdown and averaging 11 yards per pass attempt (55 yards on his five throws), an excellent total. Robinette did not throw an interception. Wade Freebeck does need playing time, since his redshirt was burned, but if you polled Vanderbilt fans right now, Robinette would probably be the choice to start this road game and set the right tone for the Dores. Freebeck could come in for a series as a change of pace. He could also be used to relieve Robinette if the veteran doesn’t get off to a good start. Robinette leading this offense, though, appears to be VU’s most ideal scenario at this point.
Kentucky’s pass defense is sixth in the SEC, allowing an average of 219.7 passing yards per game. The Wildcats have come up with a modest total of three interceptions. They will probably need one or two to give their offense a boost. Yet, by merely containing Vanderbilt’s passing game (without getting a few takeaways), the Wildcats can still give themselves a good chance to win. Keep in mind here that the Wildcats played a three-overtime game against Florida two weeks ago, which usually inflates offensive stats and makes defensive stats look worse. Florida scored in all three overtime innings against Kentucky.
KENTUCKY RUSHING DEFENSE
Kentucky’s rushing defense could be the moveable object when it faces Vanderbilt’s “resistible force” ground game. The Wildcats are next to last in the SEC with 164.7 rushing yards allowed per game. Only South Carolina (Vanderbilt’s previous opponent) is worse, at 168.5 yards allowed per contest. In Kentucky’s most recent game, against Florida on Sept. 13, Florida running back Matt Jones galloped for 156 yards on 29 carries, an average of more than five yards per carry. That game did last three overtimes, but Jones was still able to get a lot of work done in regulation, before Kentucky’s defense became tired.
VANDERBILT PASSING DEFENSE
Kentucky gets the edge in this category, though – not because it is better at throwing the ball, but because Vanderbilt is worse at defending the forward pass. That distinction might not matter to some, but sometimes, Team A isn’t better than Team B. It’s more a case of Team B being worse than Team A. The weakness is weaker, as opposed to a strength being stronger. That dynamic can often be a defining part of a two-team comparison, and it applies here.
The Commodores gave up 634 third-and-long conversions last week against South Carolina. Okay, that’s a wee bit of an exaggeration and a decidedly “unofficial statistic,” but you get the point. Vanderbilt could not get off the field on third downs, as South Carolina converted 7-of-12 such situations, usually by taking advantage of soft coverage from the Commodores’ cornerbacks. If Vanderbilt can make substantial improvements in this area on Saturday in Lexington, it will hugely increase its odds of winning. Towles is nothing special as a quarterback, so this really needs to be a point of emphasis for Vanderbilt’s secondary and, to a slightly lesser extent, the linebackers in pass coverage situations.
VANDERBILT RUSHING DEFENSE
Vanderbilt’s rushing defense is 11th in the SEC, allowing 156 yards per game. Another statistic which stands out in relation to the Dores’ defense on the ground is that opponents have rushed the ball an average of 42 times per game against VU. This is a byproduct of Temple and Ole Miss building huge midgame leads and just dumping the ball into the line of scrimmage in the final 20 minutes of regulation. It’s therefore hard to get a complete picture of just how strong this rush defense really is. South Carolina realized that the passing game was the way to move the ball against Vanderbilt, which pushed VU’s run defense even more to the side. There’s more information to be gained about this team’s run-based defense.
All in all, Kentucky and Mark Stoops are showing more signs of forward development this season, though Kentucky is far from being assured of more prosperous times. Florida was there for the taking two weeks ago, and the Wildcats found ways to come up short. That kind of loss could be a source of encouragement for Kentucky, but now Stoops has to get his players to be sure to treat it that way. This team’s offense is anything but polished, and its defense is not taking the ball away with the frequency Stoops wants. The Wildcats do seem to be the better-coached team right now, but it’s not as though the margin is night and day. It’s close, and these teams seem to be close on an overall level as a result.
It’s just one person’s opinion, but with Florida getting outclassed by a wide margin last week against Alabama, the Gators aren’t anything to write home about this season. Kentucky’s “noble loss,” the just-miss in Gainesville, seems to be viewed by most of the national media (and the betting experts in Las Vegas) as an indication that Kentucky is about to reach a higher plateau. That seems like a premature reaction – not an inaccurate one, but merely a view that has not yet been justified.
If Kentucky goes out and thumps Vanderbilt by 30 points, okay, then we’ll have reason to think that the Wildcats are truly on the way up in the Mark Stoops era. Until then, it seems that a flawed passing game and a less-than-robust rushing defense, not to mention an inability to consistently take the ball away from an opposing offense, will leave Kentucky vulnerable against Vanderbilt. It’s hard to place complete trust in the Commodores right now, because there’s no question that Derek Mason is still learning how to become a head coach in his first season, but Kentucky does not give the appearance of a team that will run away and hide from VU. This game has “nail-biter” written all over it. Kentucky deserves a slight edge, but not a big one.
PREDICTION: KENTUCKY 26, VANDERBILT 19.
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Also see: Three Keys Vanderbilt at Kentucky