Kentucky is undefeated, but far from perfect.
Although the Wildcats have won their first two games for the third time in Mark Stoops’ five-year tenure, an unblemished slate doesn’t mean Kentucky is ready and set to make a run in the Southeastern Conference.
Going into the third week of the season, eight league teams — Kentucky, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Alabama, LSU, Mississippi and Mississippi State — have won the first two encounters, with the Rebels, Commodores and Bulldogs among the early surprise teams.
It took a comeback for Kentucky to fend off Eastern Kentucky in its home opener, marking the seventh time under Stoops the Wildcats have won a game despite trailing by 10 points or more. Although an 11-point victory over the Colonels is considered somewhat of a letdown, the ability to rally and avoided upset losses against lower-ranked foes is considered a success for the Wildcats, especially given the team’s past history under such circumstances.
A marked difference from the first week to the second game of the season was Kentucky’s rushing attack, which gained 207 yards against the Colonels. Sophomore running back Benny Snell and senior quarterback Stephen Johnson carried the Wildcats in the second half after the Wildcats fell behind by double digits in the second half.
“Offensively it was frustrating at times,” Stoops said. “But, you look down and you rushed for 200 yards and threw it for 200 yards. There (were) some silly mistakes. There (are) still some discipline things that again, nobody needs to hit the panic button on. We just need to get back to work and iron some things out, and we’ll do that.”
Kentucky’s defense through the first two weeks has been solid, allowing just 117 rushing yards and just 33 total points. In addition, the Wildcats have forced five turnovers through the first eight quarters and are plus four in turnover margin, an area of weakness for Stoops and his squad last season.
For the defense, practice does make perfect.
“That’s something we compete with in practice and it has carried over to the games,” Kentucky cornerback Derrick Baity said. “There’s been a big emphasis put on it this year, especially since we didn’t do it a lot last year and it’s showing. It’s helping us win games. If you have a plus in turnover margin, you’re favored to win a game and we have a plus four and we won the game.”
Even though Kentucky’s offense hasn’t found its niche just yet, Stoops likes the way his defense has performed to open the season.
“The rush defense has been solid, really sold two games in a row,” the former Florida State defensive coordinator said. “We’re plus four and we’ve made a strong emphasis on that and that’s good to see. Sometimes there’s plans when the ball is on the ground, you just don’t get (the ball). Last year, some of that, we didn’t get get them a lot on the fumbles. You just never know with that That’s the luck of the draw, sometimes (it’s) how the ball bounces. But it’s good to be plus four. Our defense is trying to create turnovers.”
As Stoops knows, its takes success on both sides of the ball for the Cats to succeed, especially against SEC foes, such as South Carolina, Kentucky’s opponent Saturday in Columbia, South Carolina.
“We know we got lot more in us,” Stoops said. “It’s a good team. They didn’t come in here and want to like, lay around and not play well. That’s not the mentality of this (team). There’s a lot of things (we need to work on). We can come out play better (and) execute. It’s about us, our discipline, execution … things that we can get fixed. So we’ll play better. We’re excited about it (and) the team’s excited about it.”
Being undefeated with flaws is indeed better than not winning at all.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at Keith.taylor@kentuckytoday and twitter @keithtaylor21.