Seven minutes and 56 seconds. Then, five minutes and 18 seconds.
Two weeks ago, that’s how long it took for South Carolina to complete its first two drives, gash the Kentucky defense on the ground, and expose the Wildcats’ weakest link on that side of the ball. The Gamecocks rushed on 17 of their first 19 plays (23 of their first 30), eventually amassing 282 rushing yards. That was a season-high for a Kentucky defense otherwise much improved from last year.
Of course, Kentucky overcame an early 14-0 deficit, and beat South Carolina 45-38. The Wildcats followed up with a 48-14 man-handling of Louisiana-Monroe. But Kentucky’s run defense, singled out in that game against South Carolina, has become its most emphasized area of improvement heading into Baton Rouge.
After South Carolina — namely Mike Davis — ripped off 282 yards, it was the middle of the Kentucky defense catching most of the blame. Head coach Mark Stoops pointed to his linebackers, saying they “hurt us … in the run game.” He cited their “poor technique” and incorrect positioning.
They took it to heart.
Against Louisiana-Monroe, Kentucky only allowed 77 yards on the ground, and the linebackers played key roles. Middle linebacker Josh Forrest had two tackles for loss and an interception returned 29 yards for a touchdown. And on the weak side, Khalid Henderson, locked in a position battle with Ryan Flannigan since fall camp began, received strong praise from his coaches.
“We were much better,” Stoops said. “I really was proud of Khalid. I thought he played his best game. … Overall as a unit, they took great pride in trying to improve.”
Now, the improvement must be steady enough to last four quarters against an LSU team that is averaging 209 yards per game on the ground. Physicality — a staple in any linebacker’s game — comes at a premium this week, and the Wildcats know it.
“You’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game every single week and every single play,” Henderson said. “You’ve got to know that in a physical game like this, you can’t just let your body get the best of you. You’ve got to have your mind be able to take over.”
To Forrest, gaining physicality through the mental groundwork is also the focus.
“The faster you see what’s going on, you can mentally prepare to be physical,” he said. “It’s about reps and being able to see what’s going on.”
When Kentucky’s linebackers arrive in Baton Rouge Saturday, their vision will be competing with that of LSU’s running backs.
“They (LSU) run the ball extremely well,” Stoops said. “You know, with the emergence of their freshman tailback, Fournette, he’s a physical guy, and of course, Kenny Hilliard, their senior. … Their whole line does a great job, so we’ll have our hands full this week.”
Henderson said the game would be “mano y mano.” And defensive coordinator DJ Eliot described the isolations the linebacking corps would see against the Tigers’ fullback and running backs.
That kind of isolation will give Kentucky’s second line an opportunity. It can either execute the way it did when holding Louisiana-Monroe to 77 rushing yards; or it could wilt, as it did versus South Carolina.
They’re ready for the challenge.
“This has been a great week. A lot of guys are focusing, similar to the Florida game,” Henderson said. “Everybody’s just so honed in on the opportunity to try to make the best of it and get an SEC road win.”