Defense gave UK a real chance against U of L

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The Kentucky Wildcats aren’t quite as bad as some football pundits might think. The Louisville Cardinals have some warts, which they’ll need to take care of as they take aim at the Cupcake Train they call a schedule. This much we know after U of L’s 27-13 victory at Cardinal Stadium.

But we also know this: Mark Stoops can coach some defense.

A game that was 10-3 Cards at halftime easily should have been at least 10-6, if not tied at 10. Kentucky fumbled away a great opportunity to score in the final two minutes, deep iun Louisville territory.

Up to then, the only U of L points had come after Kentucky turnovers, including a touchdown pass from Teddy Bridgewater to wide receiver DeVante Parker. It was a thing of beauty, a pass to the only place the receiver could get it after leaping as high as he could - - two future NFL players connecting over not one but two inexperienced defensive backs.

But the Cards struggled to find the kind of groove that had carried them to easy wins over Ohio and Eastern Kentucky, in which they averaged 46.5 points per game. That’s because Bridgewater never got comfortable. The Wildcats, employing Stoops’ brand of defense, saw to that.

“I felt like we had a good plan,” Stoops said. “I felt like our guys were starting to play more aggressive, make them earn their yards. Had a few wrinkles here and there.”

Whatever those wrinkles were, they frustrated the Cardinals for much of the first half. Knowing Bridgewater, in his first two games, was nearly flawless whenever opposing teams blitzed, the Kentucky coaches realized it would be practically futile to bring extra pressure. They would have to attack the Heisman hopeful with their front line, mixing up angles and alignments.

And they had seen on video how Bridgewater made accurate pre-snap reads, meaning, they would have to disguise coverages as best they could.

It worked for two quarters, but in the third, the Cards came out running the football, and running it some more, with Senorise Perry and Michael Dyer. They ground out two touchdowns and at the same time, left the Wildcats gassed.

“We talked about that (at halftime),” Stoops said. “We knew they were in there talking about coming out strong in the second half.”

And they did. What helped Louisville’s effort was the fact that the Kentucky offense bogged down, thanks to an injury to starting quarterback Max Smith, and the talented young receiving corps that made some spectacular plays, but dropped at least six passes that would have changed the complexion of the game.

The post-game radio talk show chatter on the Louisville station dedicated to the Cards centered on the performance by Bridgewater. A rare, “off” game, the hosts decided, giving U of L something to work on before its next outing. There was some mention of the fact that the Wildcats had played “okay,” but virtually nothing was said about the defensive game plan developed by Stoops and coordinator D.J. Eliot.

This was the same duo who, in the final minutes leading up to last Saturday’s game with Miami, had pulled together enough maneuvers to blow up the Redhawks’ brand new triple option offense, which the UK coaches had noticed in Miami’s pre-game warm-ups.

One of the knocks on the Wildcats coming into this season was a lack of talent. And that’s an accurate assessment, when you look at the returning veterans. There are some good players, just not enough. But what we saw Saturday afternoon was a Kentucky team with first-year players who, just like the veterans, are quickly adapting to schemes that will put them in a position to win.

They have to make fewer mistakes on offense – all the better to take advantage when the defense sets the kind of tone it did against the Cardinals. The Southeastern Conference schedule is coming up fast, with opponents every bit as good (and some better) than Louisville.

There’s one thing the Big Blue Nation knows, from years of disappointment: Being competitive comes first, but the satisfaction that comes from “hanging in there” turns bitter real fast. Wins are so much more fun.

(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th year with the UK radio and TV network. He can be heard each Monday-Friday at 6 p.m. on the Big Blue Insider, on 630 WLAP-AM, and I Heart Radio.)

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