Scouting Kentucky: Offensive line and secondary have Wildcats riding high

Kentucky is coming off its first win in Knoxville since 1984, and they did it in blowout fashion.
Missouri linebacker looks to his right after Kentucky fumbles the ball in the middle of the second quarter of an eventual 15-14 loss for Missouri on Oct. 27, 2018.

Missouri hasn’t beaten Kentucky in five years. And they know it.

The Wildcats themselves offer some hope, however, because they just ended a streak of their own. They beat Tennessee in Knoxville for the first time since 1984, blowing out the Volunteers in the process and cementing their status as a good team in the Southeastern Conference East despite an 0-2 start.

This week, The Maneater spoke to Kentucky Kernel sports editor Braden Ramsey for an inside look at a dominant offensive line, a rebounding secondary and everyone else on the Wildcats.

This interview has been edited for clarity purposes.

The Maneater: How much did last week’s win over Tennessee mean to this program?

Braden Ramsey, sports editor of the Kentucky Kernel: It’s something that the fan base certainly has been waiting on a long time. I think they expected to get it a couple years ago, during the 10-3 season. They had a letdown after the big Georgia game that was essentially the SEC East championship game at that point, and they got the tar beaten out of them. They were hoping to rebound from that with a victory [against Tennessee], and they didn’t end up getting it. Kentucky fans have been waiting to end some of these streaks that have been going on for a long time, and this was one of the last ones. They ended the actual “losing to Tennessee” streak back in the late 2000s, but they still hadn’t won [in Knoxville] since 1984. It meant a lot, to say the least.

TM: Kentucky’s offensive line was seen as their strength coming into the season, has that held up so far?

BR: Yeah, the offensive line has played really well, at least in the running game. Passing-wise, it seems like [quarterback] Terry [Wilson] has had some pressure. I think they miss Logan Stenberg, to an extent. He went in the fourth round in the NFL draft to the Lions. Sometimes it’s hard to work somebody in, especially when you have four guys [left tackle Landon Young, center Drake Jackson, right guard Luke Fortner and right tackle Darian Kinnard] returning when that whole line has chemistry, so even working one new guy [left guard Kenneth Horsey] in can be a challenge. But they’ve done really well so far, and they’ve really been trying to establish the rushing attack the past couple weeks. I think a lot of those rushing yards came in the first couple of games. Mississippi State did fairly well against them [in Week 3], but they finally got it going in the second half against Tennessee. [They needed] to salt that game away with what the defense did in the first half, and they were able to do that successfully. I think the line and the running game is coming around as the defense is playing exceptionally well, and that’s been the recipe for Kentucky for as long as I can remember.

TM: Terry Wilson has come back after being out most of last season, how has he looked so far?

BR: The first game, he looked pretty solid. He made a bad decision after the whole touchdown fiasco we talked about. He looked pretty good against Ole Miss [in Week 2], did not look good against Mississippi State. Last week he had pretty good numbers, going 12 of 15. They’re still not hitting the shots down the field as much — a lot of those passes have been more of the quick variety, whether it’s the slant or the curl. Every now and then he’s hit a deeper play down the field, in the 10-15 yard range, but he’s still somewhat inconsistent hitting those passes. I think part of it’s still trying to get back into the swing of things passing-wise, and mostly working with some new receivers. The last time he played significant snaps, Lynn Bowden Jr. was a receiver, Ahmad Wagner was a receiver and both of those guys are gone, but I think he’s figuring it out. If he can push the ball downfield more effectively, that’ll really open up the rushing game even more.

TM: What has gotten into the defense after a lackluster first two games?

BR: I think they were drinking the [kool-aid] a little bit throughout the offseason. Everybody around here, and I think even nationally, some were recognizing that they returned basically everybody that played in the secondary for that team. They tied Ohio State in 2019 for the fewest passing touchdowns allowed, added [LSU transfer] Kelvin Joseph, got Davonte Robinson back [from injury] and they’re like “This team is gonna be legit; they’re gonna shut down everybody.” Sometimes you really buy into that and it makes you lay off the gas a little bit in practice. There were hints of that [in Week 1] against Auburn — any time Bo Nix completed a pass, it seemed to go for 15, 20 yards — and then Matt Corral had a field day in Week 2. They gave up seven passing touchdowns in two games after giving up nine the season prior. I think that whole thing made them recognize [the problem]. And the last two weeks, they really showed that.

TM: It seems like the Ole Miss game was a wake-up call.

BR: Oh, yeah. Especially for Kelvin Joseph. The first couple weeks, he was not anything special. I think Kentucky fans thought they were getting a guy from LSU — if you get on scholarship to play DB at LSU, that’s pretty special. I think they were expecting him to come in and make an impact right away. But kind of like I talked about with the offensive line, sometimes it takes a little bit of experience to get used to where this guy’s gonna be on this play and how he reacts to things in the moment when you’re actually on the field. The last two weeks, he has an interception in each game and he had the pick-six to start the scoring against Tennessee, so he’s really starting to play well.

TM: Who are a couple players on this Kentucky team who aren’t household names but have played really well so far?

BR: You wouldn’t think of anybody in the passing game with as few passing yards as Kentucky throws for, but Josh Ali has been their leading receiver each week and has posted at least 80 yards in [each of the first two games]. Opponents noticed how much Terry Wilson looked Ali’s way after the first two games — in the Kentucky losses, Ali had 16 catches for 186 yards, which led the team by a significant yardage. The last two weeks, he hasn’t had as many catches, but it’s correlated with the defensive efforts and salting the game away [with the run game]. He caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the Belk Bowl last year, and since then he’s used that as a springboard. Defensively, the man you’re looking for is Jamin Davis. He stepped into the other middle linebacker spot with DeAndre Square, replacing Chris Oats, who had a medical emergency during the beginning of COVID and spent a long time in a rehab facility. Jamin Davis has 23 tackles and two interceptions in the last two weeks, and he’s just really flying to the ball.

TM: What’s one matchup against Missouri that you think Kentucky can exploit?

BR: I’m gonna go with their running game. Missouri’s run defense had a really good week against LSU, probably in part due to the game script, but Missouri did not give up many yards per carry against them. That’s something that was different than it was in the first two games when Alabama and Tennessee were able to run the ball effectively. If Kentucky is able to execute its strength and get the game script in its favor like they’ve done in the last two weeks, that’s something that will really benefit them.

TM: Final score prediction?

BR: I’ve been going back and forth because I feel like this is the classic trap game. We talked about how after Kentucky got beat by Georgia a couple years ago, they went on the road to Tennessee, who wasn’t having a fantastic year [and they lost]. They’ve got the big win against Tennessee and they have Georgia next week, so it’s really a classic trap game. I think because of that, the offense will probably start slow again and Missouri could race out to a 7-0, 10-0 lead. But I think Kentucky will respond and fight back from that. It’ll probably be a lower scoring game, and I’m gonna lean 23-20 Kentucky.

Edited by Maia Bond | mbond@themaneater.com

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