Kentucky’s football team hasn’t reached the same level as Southeastern Conference power and national title contender Alabama, but the Wildcats are enjoying similar success when it comes to winning football games.
During their past 14 games, the Wildcats have recorded 11 victories. Among Southeastern Conference foes, only the Crimson Tide has a better record than Kentucky during that same time frame and is 13-1.
Experience has been a big factor behind the Wildcats’ success recently, and it’s no surprise Kentucky has developed a winning mentality on the field. While winning always helps on the recruiting trail, upgraded workout and practice facilities on campus have played a big role in the program’s ability to turn the proverbial corner.
Improved recruiting by Vince Marrow and his staff also has resulted in an improvement across the board, especially on the defensive side of the football.
The Wildcats lost several key players from last year’s 10-3 team, including first-round draft choice Josh Allen and nearly all of the team’s secondary, but have enough talent to help fill the void. Just look at DeAndre Square and his performance in a season-opening 38-24 win over Toledo last week.
“It is encouraging (to see the younger players perform well), because you know when you have the exodus that we had this past year that you have to overcome that inexperience and that's just the way it is,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “Nobody's going to feel sorry for you, right? I mean just ask coach (John) Calipari, right? He's got to deal with that every year.
“It's hard. I tell him all the time, ... 'I don't know how you do that. I don't know how you can do that.' It's hard coaching young guys. It's tough, it's a challenge, but we all have to do it and that's what also makes it a lot of fun, I guess, too.”
Prior to Stoops’ arrival and even early in his tenure at Kentucky, the Wildcats struggled on defense, and seeking better play on defense was one of the top reasons Mitch Barnhart hired a defensive-minded coach when he lured Stoops from Florida State, where he served as a defensive coordinator under Jimbo Fisher before taking over at Kentucky.
Kentucky has surrendered 24 points or less in 14 of the past 15 games, the best stretch for the Wildcats since Oct. 4, 1978 through Sept 6, 1980. Limiting points is a big thing and defending passes is another thing when it comes to wining football games, but stopping the run is critical.
The common thread in losses by Tennessee, Missouri and South Carolina on opening weekend was run defense. Georgia State rushed for 213 yards against the Volunteers, North Carolina piled up 238 yards in a win over rival South Carolina and Wyoming torched Missouri’s defense, rushing for 297 yards on 42 carries.
Kentucky gave up 181 yards on the ground in its opener, but expect that number to get better as the season progresses and a young secondary gains more experience.
“You just always have to be ready to go, especially on third down,” defensive back Jamari Brown said. “You have to take that serious and lock down. That could make or break you on defense.”