In the first two weeks of the season, Kentucky’s defense struggled to find a rhythm and put together a string of stops. Against Ole Miss in the second game of the season, they gave up 42 points, ending their 18 consecutive game streak of holding an opponent from putting up 30 or more. In the opening matchup against Auburn and the Ole Miss game combined, they gave up seven passing touchdowns, tying their season total from a year ago.
Then a switch flipped. In the last two weeks against Mississippi State and Tennessee, they have given up a combined nine total points and forced ten turnovers (zero in the first two outings). They now are second in the nation in interceptions (9) and have jumped from last in the country to 16th in passing defense.
How has the defense been able to lock-up and become hard to score on? UK Head Coach Mark Stoops attributed it to players being in the right position and keeping momentum.
“Good things happen when you get all 11 guys in the same position. We’ve been fortunate, we’ve had a lead and (the opponent) has been in a little more predictable pass, although not so much in the Tennessee game because those interceptions happened early. I think it’s guys just playing well and being in position, playing good up front, creating some pressure, good eyes, playing more disciplined on the back end, our vision has been better, and breaking on the football, so it’s been a good group effort,” he said.
Maybe the biggest turnaround for any defender on the team has been LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph’s performance. The sophomore defensive back was “moss’d”, burned, called for pass interference and unsportmanlike penalties, and anything else that could go wrong in the first two games. Since? An interception in each of the last two games, including returning one for a touchdown against Tennessee which put the Cats up 7-0 midway through the first quarter.
UK Head Coach Mark Stoops said Joseph was pressing a little too much early on, leading to many fundamental ,mistakes, but has since keyed in on following the rhythm of the game.
“I think Kelvin let the game come to him and at that position you are only going to have so many opportunities per game and you have to make the most of it and he has done that the past couple of weeks. He is letting the game come to him, do his job and focus on what he needs to do and good things are going to happen to him. That goes for all of our team. There are plays we need to get ironed out still. We have some guys and again, I don’t think it comes from a selfish place, they want to do well for the team, but when they are doing things they are not coached to do, it is not going to help anybody.”
The outside linebacker position group has also really found a rhythm, and their sharp performances have been led by both upperclassmen and freshman. Senior Boogie Watson lived in the Tennessee backfield last Saturday, picking up a key sack in the Vols’ first drive to set them out of field goal range. Junior Jordan Wright and freshman JJ Weaver have also provided a lot of production, as Wright picked off a pass against Mississippi State and then returned it for touchdown, and Weaver had a career high six tackles (two for a loss) against Tennessee.
UK Head Coach Mark Stoops praised their work ethic in the last few weeks as they have found ways to make big plays.
“I thought all three of those outside linebackers that played, really played well. I thought Boogie’s (Watson) sack early in the game was a major play in the game for momentum and got them out of field goal position. Jamar (Watson) really played a good game. Then with J-Dub (Jordan Wright) playing with J.J.(Weaver) it gives us some length and an opportunity to rotate the three of them. They both did some really good things. I thought J.J. lost contain on one play early in the game and I kind of got after him on the sidelines and I love him, he responded in such a good way and played outstanding really, played some really good football the rest of the game. And J.J., a play with him, very similar to J-Dubs, where they tried to reach him and get outside and get out on the perimeter and he is so long and a big, strong guy, and made a tackle for loss. I think all three of those outside linebackers are playing really well,” he said.
Stoops said the team will be without senior defensive tackle Quinton Bohanna this coming Saturday against Missouri, as he suffered a knee injury in the first half against the Vols and will miss some time to recover. With that said, Bohanna was coaching his teammates on the sideline after his injury against Tennessee according to the UK coach, a good sign that he will be ready to return soon.