After a step back, Kentucky’s defense looks to rebound against Georgia


Kentucky safety Yusuf Corker makes a tackle during the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019, at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. Kentucky won 37-30. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

Eric Decker

Kentucky’s defense bore the brunt of the team’s criticism for the first two weeks of the season. But even after Saturday’s loss to Missouri – which almost nobody foresaw before the year began – it has been stellar since then.

Brad White’s unit picked up a combined nine interceptions in the Wildcat victories over Mississippi State and Tennessee, stacking two extremely efficient performances. Not even the 2000 Ravens or ‘85 Bears could sustain that level of play each game though.

The numbers don’t look the prettiest, but in context, the Wildcat defense didn’t perform all that terribly in the loss:

     – It held the Tigers to 20 points, just one more than Alabama did to open the season, in a year offenses have been running rampant across the SEC.

     – Connor Bazelak had an excellent completion percentage (70%), but totaled only 201 yards and no scores.

     – Larry Rountree found paydirt twice and recorded 126 rushing yards in the game, but averaged a meager 3.4 yards over his 37 carries.

That said, it wasn’t perfect; Mizzou was able to sustain drives in large part due to a 10-for-20 success rate on third down, and 4-of-5 on fourth down. Kentucky’s offense only possessing the ball for 16:50 didn’t help either, but Coach White knows the defense missed many chances to get off the field.

“[Mizzou] did a nice job of executing and I don’t think we did a good job of executing the details of certain calls and techniques,” he said in Wednesday’s press conference. “Nothing to take away from them; they were a good football team. They came out and were ready. We had plenty of opportunities to get off the field and we didn’t take advantage.”

One major bright spot was Yusuf Corker. The junior safety has left little to question about his tackling ability and play reading progress since being inserted into the starting lineup last season, and did so again on Saturday, racking up 18 tackles – including 16 of the solo variety, which tied the Kentucky single-game record.

“Going into the game, I kinda knew he’d be up there in numbers – maybe not up to the 18 number – but we were going to have him be a box fitter.” White said. “If we popped a gap or missed it he could clean it up. It’s a real luxury for a coordinator to have a guy back there like that that can… he can basically be an eraser for you.”

Regardless of how the Mizzou game went, it’s now in the past. The Cats have to be focused on what’s ahead, as one of the nation’s top teams coming to town.

Georgia is still a top dog in the SEC East, and will be until someone takes their mantle, but this offense isn’t as intimidating as past ones if you look at star power. Stetson Bennett and Zamir White are dangerous, but they’re not Jake Fromm and Sony Michel, Nick Chubb or D’Andre Swift, even if their game plan remains comparable.

“Even with the new coordinator you still see a lot of similarities [from past Georgia offenses],” Coach White said. “It’s going to start with the run game. They’re going to try to be real physical at the offensive line and try to move you off the point. Their running backs are as talented of a group as we’ve seen.”

Despite the shaky start and long odds – the Cats are 15-point underdog according to OddsShark – the defense exudes confidence it can lead the team to victory no matter the opponent.

“No more joking around,” defensive tackle Marquan McCall said. “It’s a serious business so we gotta stay focused at all times.”

Cedrick Dort mentioned Kentucky still wants to be in the discussion for best defense in the SEC. Saturday at Kroger field offers quite the stage to make another statement.