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By Cody Porter | @KernelPorter
A contender was witnessed for the first time in quite a while Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium.
No, that contender wasn’t just the Georgia Bulldogs.
For the first time since its loss to Western Kentucky, UK showed it could contend. And it did so against the nation’s No. 11 team.
Entering the evening, the Bulldogs had a lone loss on the season, which was a blowout loss to South Carolina two weeks ago.
Just as the Gamecocks did, the Cats exposed a mediocre Georgia run defense, as they rushed for a team total 206 yards.
Even when sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith was proving he could lead with a high-volume passing game, the Cats’ stable of powerful,
SEC-like running backs was thought to be a better option.
It can be said they’ve had their faults, but they’ve been the offense’s most consistent resource.
One area the Cats’ coaching staff can’t point to with that notion is the passing game, which is where this week’s areas of improvement begin.
A mixed set of rushers, consisting of running backs Jonathan George and Raymond Sanders, along with freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow, maneuvered their way down the field throughout the game Saturday.
Once in the red zone, UK head coach Joker Phillips opted to bring in senior Morgan Newton as the team’s wildcat formation quarterback. Newton did his part — scoring two touchdowns, once on a pass and another on the run.
What wasn’t evident was that either of those previously mentioned quarterbacks could lead the team across the 50-yard line with a passing game.
Whitlow was 9-13 for 86 yards, but through four quarters that doesn’t add up to much (6.6 yard average).
Newton and Whitlow found themselves in opportunistic situations on some deeper passes. However, neither could successfully plant a pass where the receiver could make a play on it.
Saturday wasn’t the only case of this problem for the team. It has been frequent in recent weeks, as the Cats have often been stagnant on offense.
If Phillips and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders think interchanging quarterbacks is a good idea, why not at least try freshman walk-on Jeff
Witthuhn to provide a true passing threat?
A bowl game is now no longer an option, so the team has nothing to lose and nowhere to go but up. See wide receiver Matt Roark playing against
Tennessee last season as an example.
2. Pass defense
The excuses for the secondary being young are getting old.
As Phillips alluded to after the Cats’ loss, “you don’t allow them to throw over your head.”
“That’s the thing, we’ve given up the X plays, which has cost us.”
In giving up the “X plays,” the Cats have linebackers who are also getting outmanned underneath.
Georgia junior quarterback Aaron Murray set personal bests in completions and yards, as he was able to find receivers, notably junior Tavarres King, wherever, whenever he wanted.
Beyond the line, the Cats simply don’t look aware when a quarterback is set to bring the attack to them. And Murray did so 38 times, 30 of which he came out a winner.
While the young secondary did give up the big plays, freshman cornerback Cody Quinn agrees they have to learn from such mistakes, which they have seen often between Murray and Arkansas senior quarterback Tyler Wilson last week.
3. Return game
The biggest helping hand for the UK offense Saturday was the field position often acquired by freshman kick returner DeMarcus Sweat.
His speed and size make him a tough tackle for any defense, but if he can do so against such a formidable opponent, then given what UK has left on the schedule, he should be able to continue his aid.
Sweat had five returns in the loss that averaged out to 22.2 yard per return, including a long of 34.
As of Sunday’s update, UK ranks just above halfway at No. 56 in kick returns.
While success was found there, the Cats also must find a way to better protect on the other end when Sweat needs to return a punt.
Despite the Bulldogs’ five punts, a fair catch had to be called on each and every one.
If an opponent is pinned deep in its own territory, having the chance to make moves on a punt return is key for a team with a lackluster offense.