Kentucky surging behind vastly improved defense

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops, shown here after Saturday night's 21-13 win over No. 25 Missouri, is 8-8 the past two seasons after a 2-10 debut year.

Although they currently are overshadowed by the yardage totals of LSU tailback Leonard Fournette and the passing accuracy of Georgia quarterback Greyson Lambert, the Kentucky Wildcats are producing remarkable numbers as well.

After allowing 37.5 points per game last year in Southeastern Conference contests and losing two defensive linemen to the NFL draft, including first-round pick Bud Dupree, the Wildcats are yielding just 16.3 through their first three league games this season. The drastic improvement has Kentucky 3-1 and thirsty for more entering Saturday's home game against Eastern Kentucky.

The Wildcats notched their third win last Saturday night by topping Missouri 21-13, ending the Tigers' 11-game road winning streak in regular-season contests.

photo SEC logo

SEC schedule for Saturday

Noon: South Carolina at Missouri, SEC Network3:30: Alabama at Georgia, CBS4: San Jose State at Auburn SEC Network7: Ole Miss at Florida ESPN7: Eastern Michigan at LSU ESPNU7: Arkansas at Tennessee, ESPN27: Vanderbilt at MTSU, CBS Sports Network7:30: Miss. State at Texas A&M, SEC Network7:30: E. Kentucky at Kentucky, SEC Network Alt.

"Some things are coming together for us, and guys are playing hard," Kentucky third-year coach Mark Stoops said in a news conference after topping the two-time SEC East champions. "It's about team defense and being on the same page and communicating and playing with a sense of urgency, and we're doing some good things. We kept them uncomfortable and mixed things up."

Kentucky allowed an average of 407.3 yards per game last season but is yielding 361.0 so far this year. Granted, the opposing trio of South Carolina, Florida and Missouri may not possess the greatest offensive arsenals in league history, but the Wildcats are proving to be quite stingy when it matters most.

After giving up 30 touchdowns in 44 opposing red-zone opportunities last season, the Wildcats have given up five in 13 this month.

"The two most important situations for a defense in a game are third downs and red zone," Wildcats third-year defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot told reporters Saturday. "You have to play good in those situations, and we didn't play as good on third down in this game as we had the last couple, but we played well in the red zone and held them to field goals."

Senior linebacker Josh Forrest, a third-team All-SEC selection last season after leading the Wildcats with 110 tackles, is off to another good start. The 6-foot-3, 255-pounder from Paducah has 39 tackles, two tackles for loss and an interception.

Another senior is flourishing in better-late-than-never fashion. That is defensive tackle Cory "C.J." Johnson. The 6-3, 300-pounder from Columbia, S.C., racked up 11 tackles against Missouri, topping Forrest by two.

So why are the Wildcats so vastly improved after losing Dupree, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and ZaDarius Smith, a fourth-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens?

"We take a lot of pride in stopping the run and getting to the passer, and we've got a lot more speed than we had last year," Johnson told reporters. "We're sideline-to-sideline now."

Kentucky's defense aided its offense last weekend, as the Wildcats didn't take the lead until a 24-yard touchdown pass from Patrick Towles to tight end C.J. Conrad with 1:58 remaining in the third quarter made it 14-10. Towles strengthened as the game progressed and wound up a snazzy 22-of-27 (81.5 percent) for 249 yards and two touchdowns.

The Wildcats snapped an 18-game losing streak against ranked opponents - Missouri was No. 25 entering the contest - but Stoops stopped short of calling it a statement game.

"I'm not going to say that, but it is very important as far as where we want to go," he said. "We feel like we've got a better football team, but we're not there yet. You've got to have guys make plays in critical situations to start growing.

"I would never say any game is a must win, because I know we're building a program here. We know we're getting there."

Kentucky raced out to a 5-1 start last season before losing six consecutive games against eventual bowl teams. The Wildcats do not have as daunting a stretch run this time around, with Auburn and Louisville struggling in addition to the likely victories over the Colonels this week, Vanderbilt on Nov. 14 and Charlotte on Nov. 21.

The only remaining foe currently ranked among the top 20 is No. 8 Georgia, but Stoops isn't about to get ahead of things.

"We've been in a bunch of close football games this year and have come up with three victories," Stoops said. "We've got a lot of excitement in our program right now, and we want to keep bringing people back. I want this energy and excitement to continue to grow."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.