Kentucky's once-porous defense is now stingy against the run
By GARY B. GRAVES
Sep. 21, 2017
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's defense is leaving opponents little room to run.
The Wildcats certainly had room for improvement after last year's porous start in which they allowed over 200 yards rushing and 500-plus overall in their first three games. Florida had a field day in Gainesville by rushing for 244 of its 564 yards in the 45-7 pummeling that Kentucky players took personally for their lack of resistance.
"We went down there and got beat really bad, and they rushed for a lot of yards," linebacker Courtney Love recalled. "Like, 200-plus yards. That's something we cannot have."
Kentucky (3-0, 1-0) enters Saturday night's Southeastern Conference matchup against the No. 20 Gators (1-1, 1-0) giving little ground.
Three opponents have yet to break 63 yards rushing against Kentucky and have combined for just 171 with one touchdown. Kentucky leads the SEC in fewest rushing yards allowed, yielding just 57 a game which ranks third nationally. They finished last season allowing 228.2 yards per game on the ground.
Defense-minded Kentucky coach Mark Stoops expected improvement, but didn't foresee these kinds of numbers so soon. He's stressing that the Wildcats can't stop there with a chance to lead the SEC East and end a 30-game losing streak to Florida.
"It's critically important in the SEC to be able to rush the ball and also defend the rush," noted Stoops, who added, "It's amazing what the statistics look like in that area."
Though Kentucky's overall average of 346.7 total yards allowed ranks in the middle league-wise, that number marks a big drop from this point a year ago. Most encouraging to the Wildcats has been their knack for making clutch stops and creating turnovers.
Consecutive fourth-down stands keyed last week's 23-13 SEC victory at South Carolina . Kentucky converted the first stop into a late third-quarter field goal before mounting a goal-line stand for no gain early in the fourth.
A late Gamecocks TD got them within 20-13, but Derrick Baity's interception with 1:31 remaining ended that quest. That gave Kentucky seven takeaways and a plus-4 margin that's tied for 17th nationally.
Defensive players say Kentucky's multiple schemes haven't really changed. However, experience has created a better understanding of players' positioning that they're simply executing.
"It's just technique, effort, guys committing themselves to strain every play and trusting that the guy next to them is going to do their job as well," said House, who was elevated to defensive coordinator after D.J. Eliot left for Colorado during the offseason.
Added Baity, "This is a different team, different players. We're all in."
The Wildcats insist everybody must be in the right places at all times against a Florida team struggling to develop offensive consistency.
Kentucky isn't paying attention to the Gators' 286-yard average. The Wildcats see a team eager and capable of breaking out and point to last week's 63-yard, Hail Mary TD pass that beat then-No. 23 Tennessee 26-20 as a reminder to account for every player.
Kentucky's run defense is thriving with that approach so far, with the pass defense seeking improvement. Florida coach Jim McElwain isn't shocked by what he has seen, having noticed the Wildcats' potential even in the rout.
"You take a look at where they are statistically this year, they've totally not changed what they've done," he said. "Players are believing, they're playing the way (they) should be."
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AP Sports Writer Mark Long in Gainesville, Florida, contributed to this story.