Breaking Bad: UK defense improves, but more work needed

UK sophomore cornerback Martavius Neloms tackles Mississippi State running back Vick Ballard in the loss to Mississippi State in Starkville, MS on October 30, 2010. Photo by Ryan Buckler | Staff

By Cody Porter

The aftermath of a 38-point romp of the Cats by Florida on Saturday leaves UK in a 26-year mourning period with questions that likely will never be answered.

Mainly, what do they have to do to stop the Gators? The rushing game was on point. The defense, at least early, was slowing Florida’s offense.

The biggest concern may be the fact that coaches decided during Friday’s flight to Gainesville, Fla., that senior quarterback Morgan Newton would be Saturday’s starter, unbeknownst to him until pregame warm-ups.

That decision starts this week’s Breaking Bad ahead of UK’s game against South Carolina.

1. Coaching
As was previously mentioned, head coach Joker Phillips and his assistants didn’t notify Newton he was starting until warm-ups, or at least those were Newton’s words.

It is a tough situation for a player who hasn’t always had quality resources at his disposal.

“Over my career, it seems like it’s (always) inopportune. Bad timing. Bad situations. Bad circumstances,” he told The Courier-Journal’s Kyle Tucker. “You know, post-Randall Cobb, post-Chris Matthews, but pre-(DeMarcus) Sweat, pre-Demarco (Robinson) and all these other guys (meaning he had few viable targets last year).”

Entering Saturday, it was thought to be freshman Jalen Whitlow who would be taking snaps as UK’s back-up quarterback. However, as the game played out, Whitlow received minimal action later in the game.

“We’ve been prepping Jalen to be our Number 2 since the Louisville game. We worked Morgan to be the Number 2 going up to the Louisville game, but after the Louisville game we started prepping Jalen to be our Number 2,” Phillips said.

Since that time, Newton had been practicing as an H-back.

If sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith isn’t ready to go Saturday, as unlikely as it appears, Phillips needs to scrap the pass except for limited occasions and rely on the running game that competed with that of the Gators.

2. Pass Coverage
It’s known at this point that UK isn’t the best pass defending team in the SEC. It has taken great strides, and an early interception by senior cornerback Martavius Neloms on Saturday seemed to be a positive.

But, once sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel settled in, Florida’s talent showed through, as he was able to manipulate the UF offense down the field.

South Carolina junior quarterback Connor Shaw hasn’t resembled his typical self thus far in the season.

Saturday’s game against Missouri was a bright spot for the second-year starter, though, who threw a season-high 20 completions on 21 attempts for 249 yards and two touchdowns.

Last season against the Cats, Shaw attacked UK to the tune of 311 yards and four touchdowns on 26 completions.

Just as Teddy Bridgewater was susceptible to doing, Shaw can use his legs if needed, which he did more and more as last season wore on.

3. Run Defense
At a glance it appears the Cats did a decent job of slowing the Florida running game. Florida’s leading rusher, senior Mike Gillislee, gained 56 yards on 13 carries.

Pretty good considering he was the conference’s leading rusher.

But the Gators brought the gauntlet to the Swamp. They ended with five rushers totaling 30 or more yards, adding up to 200 yards on 45 carries at game’s end.

With South Carolina approaching, junior running back Marcus Lattimore will be relied upon more than the assortment of options the Gators used.

The Cats have yet to encounter it this season, but mobile quarterbacks in the past have gotten the best of them. USC’s Shaw is the team’s second-leading rusher with 127 yards on 31 carries. Last season he managed only 42 carries, but his arm led the Gamecocks to a 54-3 victory.