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‘We gotta be better.’ Veteran Kentucky defense still figuring things out.

·6 min read

For the second straight week, University of Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White found himself in the awkward position of having just watched his unit seal a victory with a game-defining play after it failed to stifle an opponent for much of the second half.

“We gotta be better,” White said. “Ty made a big play there at the end, which was good. We needed it. But we gotta get better, at all levels.”

Chattanooga took a page out of Missouri’s playbook, dinking and dunking its way to 339 yards of offense, 168 of those yards by way of a quarterback whom Kentucky failed to put on the ground once Saturday. After racking up six sacks against Louisiana Monroe in its opener, the Cats have managed a single take down of a quarterback, delivered by J.J. Weaver after he came through undetected off the edge near the end of UK’s 35-28 win over the Tigers last week. That play led to a failed fourth-down conversion by Mizzou.

With Kentucky leading 21-16 on Saturday, safety Ty Ajian was himself in the perfect spot to pick off Mocs passer Cole Copeland, and he was able to get enough room to run it back 95 yards for a touchdown that proved crucial; Copeland with 1:20 left rushed for a touchdown that pulled the Mocs within five points. Chattanooga failed to recover an onside kick, ending its bid to become the latest Football Championship Subdivision school to score an upset this season.

The Mocs were 7-for-15 on third-down attempts, slightly worse than the 9-for-15 mark put up by Missouri last week.

“When you get nickel-and-dimed, it frustrates you,” White said. “It makes third down harder. When it’s third-and-long, you see it, we’re getting off the field. Third-and-4, third-and-3, the ball’s caught at the sticks. In a normal situation, a 3-yard gain on a pass play’s a win, but a 3-yard gain on a third-and-3 when it’s sitting on the sticks moves the chains. We’ve got to get ourselves in longer down and distances. In the run game today, I just thought we were soft. We needed to dominate the line of scrimmage today and we didn’t.

“We’ll go back to the film and we’ll see where those issues came from. Was it structural? Was it personnel? Whatever the case may be. Maybe it was the call? We’ve gotta firm that up.”

What happened?

Chattanooga rushed for 171 yards, the most by a non-conference opponent since Virginia Tech touched up the Cats for 331 in the 2019 Belk Bowl. Copeland targeted Reginald Harrison on 15 occasions, connecting nine times for 75 yards and a touchdown. Most of Copeland’s 21 completions (on 35 attempts) looked similar to the kind Connor Bazelak was tossing last week; underneath UK’s coverage and forcing UK defenders into uncomfortable positions.

After giving up an early touchdown, Kentucky mostly kept the Mocs at bay in the first half en route to a 14-10 halftime lead. Chattanooga dominated the second-half time of possession — 19:12 to 10:48 — and ran 41 plays to Kentucky’s 20 over the final 30 minutes to make a game of it. Chattanooga even took a 16-14 lead minutes into the fourth quarter.

UK’s had a tough time in one-on-one matchups when they’re presented. Losing those has often kept the defense on the field longer than it should have been.

“There’s no hiding. There’s no protecting all the time,” Stoops said. “You have to win some one-on-one battles.”

White blamed himself — “I was trying to get a little bit aggressive on that deal” — for the Mocs’ biggest gain, a 48-yard gasher by Ailym Ford on third-and-1 that three plays later gave way to their first touchdown, a tone-setter for the afternoon.

Depth continues to be a limiting factor for his defense, too. UK was without starting “Jack” linebacker Jordan Wright on Saturday, as well as inside linebacker Martez Thrower, a true freshman who played in both of UK’s other games. Cornerback Quandre Mosely is playing with a cast, and three other defensive backs — Andru Phillips, Vito Tisdale and Joel Williams — continue to be away from the team due to a legal matter.

Weaver started in Wright’s place and had one of the Wildcats’ five tackles for loss. The sophomore, who’s coming off an ACL surgery, didn’t wow White, his position coach.

“I can’t say for sure until I see the film, but I would not say it was probably his best game,” White said. “He wouldn’t probably, and there’s not many guys, if any, on the defense that would say that was their best game.”

Jacquez Jones again played well — the Ole Miss tackle had nine tackles and a pass break-up in the red zone that prevented a would-be touchdown — and DeAndre Square had two tackles for loss along with two quarterback hurries. Until Kentucky’s able to demonstrate that it can get consistent, meaningful pressure on the quarterback, though, its secondary will continue getting tested, and end up in a position where two of its three members — Carrington Valentine (11) and Yusuf Corker (six) — are among the team’s leading tacklers. Ajian and Corker were among the leaders last week, along with Jones.

Creating turnovers will continue to be a point of emphasis in practice, too. Ajian’s interception was just its second turnover on the year, following an interception last week by Jones. The offense, conversely, has given the ball away eight times already, making the need to catch up in that department all the more urgent.

“Turnovers start to come in bunches,” Ajian said. “Last week we had an opportunity to come away with four and only came up with one. We just want to build on that.”

So far the performances turned in by a Kentucky defense that started 10 seniors in its first two games and nine on Saturday have been less impressive than anticipated. White admitted as much. While that experience hasn’t consistently revealed itself on the field, it has paid dividends on the sideline.

That gives White hope that things will shortly make a turn for the better.

“The effort is not an issue,” White said. “… To a man on the sideline, they don’t point a finger. They don’t say, ‘Coach, bad call, should’ve done this, should’ve done that.’ They all look at each other and say, ‘I gotta do better, I gotta do better, that one’s on me.’ Now, we gotta clean up the, ‘Hey, that one’s on me,’ cause everyone’s raising their hand, and that’s not good enough. We understand that. Myself included. We gotta get that fixed.

“They’re united, and you can work with that.”

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