LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Mark Stoops believes his defense can rebound from a blowout loss and reclaim the aggression it played with earlier this season.
The Wildcats lost their mental and physical edge after a bye was supposed to recharge them.
Kentucky (5-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) had hoped the off week would allow them to reboot many phases, especially a susceptible defense that had been yielding yards and points in bunches. Then came last week’s 45-7 thumping at Mississippi State that marked the Wildcats’ second conference loss in three games as well as a season high in points allowed.
They’ve yielded 79 points in their past two contests, and Stoops seeks more resistance along with a few playmakers.
“We’re not making enough competitive plays right now,” Stoops said Monday. “Sometimes, you have an advantage and we’re not making plays. That’s not OK.
“The secondary, we’re making very few competitive plays. In one-on-one situations in the Mississippi State game, we lost all 10 according to my count. That’s not acceptable.”
Kentucky’s defense has an opportunity to regroup Saturday night against Tennessee (3-4, 0-4), which hasn’t scored an offensive touchdown in over a month. The Wildcats’ prospects depend on putting that loss behind them and asserting themselves again.
Shutting down the Vols’ running game would be a good starting point.
Kentucky showed potential for being a shutdown defensive unit.
The Wildcats’ run defense was ranked third nationally heading into the game against Florida, which entered the matchup with its own offensive issues. But the Gators ended up rushing for 186 yards and erasing a 27-14, fourth-quarter deficit with 14 unanswered points and throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to an uncovered receiver.
Missouri and MSU also found room to run on the Wildcats, whose unit ranks eighth in SEC play at 183.8 yards allowed per game. Two weeks after yielding 213 yards on the ground to Mizzou, the Bulldogs gained 282 against Kentucky with two 40-yard touchdown runs.
Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald’s 40-yard scoring run just before halftime gave Mississippi State a 17-7 lead that swung the momentum for good, though Stoops noted other lost chances as he scored three TDs overall. Kentucky’s task over its four remaining SEC games is correcting flaws and return to giving little ground.
“We just have to forget about it in a sense to learn from our mistakes,” Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen said.
That also means not taking anyone for granted, starting with Tennessee.
Stoops pointed out that the Volunteers have played close games against South Carolina and Florida despite losing. Though nothing has gone right for them offensively in recent weeks — particularly in Saturday’s 45-7 loss to top-ranked Alabama — Stoops said Tennessee still has plenty of playmakers.
But even with the Wildcats’ recent stumbles, Tennessee knows it must execute in a game with both schools having something to prove for different reasons.
“We can’t go in with missed assignments and missed communication and expect to win the game,” Tennessee tight end Ethan Wolf said. “We’ve got to start from the first play and finish all the way through the last.”
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee contributed to this report.