Kentucky came into Tiger Stadium as a team looking for answers. They left not sure they found any.
But that’s no reason they couldn’t provide a few.
The Wildcats may be 2-3 overall, 0-2 in the Southeastern Conference and mired in a three-game losing streak, but they offer the next best thing to guinea pigs for next week’s key SEC matchup between LSU and Florida. The scoreboard comparison may favor the Gators, who overwhelmed Kentucky 48-10 last week in Lexington, Ky., while LSU won 35-7 on Saturday afternoon.
“That’s going to be a very, very physical game,” Kentucky safety Winston Guy Jr. said. “I think that’s going to be the game of the year.”
On defense, Kentucky players and coaches saw a lot of similarities between the Tigers and Gators.
“It’s probably comparable talent-wise,” UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. “LSU is probably a little better in the secondary. LSU is much more multiple in what they do. They show you a number of different looks, a number of different problems that you have to deal with.”
Does either have an edge in speed?
“Both of them are fast,” Sanders said. “It comes a point where faster, it’s like being more pregnant. When you’re as fast as both those teams are, you’re fast.”
That certainly showed in this contest. Wildcats starting quarterback Morgan Newton (6 of 20, 57 yards) missed on his first nine passes, only getting his first completion with less than a minute left in the first half. He was replaced at the start of the third quarter by freshman Maxwell Smith (1 of 5, 9 yards) in hopes he’d provide a spark, UK coach Joker Phillips said.
Smith did just that. But it was, metaphorically speaking, around open gasoline cans.
On a third-and-10 at the UK 43, Smith didn’t adjust to cornerback Tyrann Mathieu’s blitz. Mathieu came around the right tackle, tomahawked the ball out of Smith’s upraised hand, recovered the fumble and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown that put LSU up 28-0.
LSU held Kentucky to 59 yards on 42 plays through three quarters. Newton returned in the fourth quarter to notch 96 yards and a touchdown after the game’s outcome was not in doubt.
“They’re the best defense we’ve played to this point,” Newton said.
Better than Florida?
“I would say so,” Newton said. “Their secondary is as good as anybody. Tight windows to make throws.”
Conversely, the Wildcats looked much better than their 11th-place SEC ranking in rushing defense (203.8 yards per game), a standing established largely by their play against the Gators, who shredded UK for 405 rushing yards.
LSU runners found little room for most of the first half, totaling 77 yards on 23 carries. The UK defense was especially potent on first down, holding rushers to three or fewer yards on eight of its first-down running attempts.
“I thought they played extremely hard today,” defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. “I thought they matched the physicality of the opponent, which was going to be a major challenge, because this is a big, strong, physical football team. They make no bones about it. That’s their style. They come right at you, and I thought our guys matched that.”
But for two key plays, the Wildcats’ first-half pass defense also started strong. On the first, UK cornerback Randall Burden and safety Martavius Neloms seemed to have LSU’s Rueben Randall bracketed, but Randall went airborne to snare Jarrett Lee’s 37-yard pass, giving the Tigers a first-and-goal at the 5.
“You’ve got a post safety on a post route. That’s got to be a pick,” Minter said. “You’ve got to fire your quarterback for firing a post route into a post safety. We’ve got to make plays on the ball when we’ve got a chance. We’ve got to make tackles in the open.”
They didn’t when Lee found Odell Beckham Jr. with a second-quarter pass in the second quarter. Cornerback Anthony Mosley had a shot at Beckham’s legs to stop him at the UK 37. But Beckham slipped his grasp, made four other Wildcats miss on a cross-field backtrack and turned it into a 51-yard touchdown play.
Armed with that 14-0 halftime lead, LSU wore down the UK defense. The Tigers finished with 348 total yards, 179 on the ground.
“Our offense cannot do that to our defense,” Phillips said. “We cannot go three and out, three and out, three and out and put our defense in a tough situation going against a talented team, a big, physical team.”
Still, Minter remained impressed with LSU’s offense but found it hard to compare to Florida’s.
“They’re a complete team,” Minter said of LSU. “They run the ball. They throw it adequately. They’ve got a quarterback (Jordan Jefferson) coming back … who’s their guy. They’re good on defense. They kick the ball adequately enough to win. They’re a complete team. They’ll be there in the end.
“They’re two different styles. … (LSU) can match up with a lot of teams because they’re physical. Their defense is physical. Their offense is physical. It always gives you a chance to win in the SEC when you’re physical.”