LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky’s defense needs to get back to the basics.
A reset was needed to refocus a Wildcats defense that got bullied by Mississippi State and quarterback Dak Prescott in a 42-16 road loss. Kentucky (4-3, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) allowed a season-high 586 yards to the Bulldogs and hopes a renewed emphasis on tackling and aggression yields better results against Tennessee (3-4, 1-3) on Saturday night.
”We went back to fundamentals and working on a few things that you have to continue to get better at as the season goes on,” Kentucky defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. ”You can’t let go of those fundamental issues. We (have) worked on that.”
Kentucky’s loss was hard to accept for a defense that showed improvement over the first six games, all of which were decided by eight points or fewer. The Wildcats’ quest to gain ground in the SEC East ended with them regressing, and now they have to face a border rival in Tennessee.
Matt Elam took over at nose guard for injured Melvin Lewis – who sustained a broken leg against Auburn – but neither he nor Kentucky could slow Prescott in the second half. The Wildcats can’t afford a repeat against the Volunteers, who are just as hungry to win after falling 19-14 to then-No. 8 Alabama last week.
”We have to do better than what we did on Saturday against a similar type of offense,” Eliot said. ”It’s got to improve. We’re more focused on us than concerning ourselves about the opponent. We’re really focusing on us getting better and improving from our mistakes.”
Like Mississippi State, Tennessee features a mobile quarterback in junior Josh Dobbs, who’s capable of pulling off long runs and throwing downfield. He leads an offense ranked third in SEC rushing with an average of 209 yards per game but Tennessee gained just 132 against the Crimson Tide.
The Vols’ defense is gearing up as well for Kentucky and quarterback Patrick Towles, who threw for 218 yards and is a threat to run as well.
”They have a lot of explosive plays,” said Vols freshman linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., who has brushed up on two years’ worth of Kentucky game film. ”Their quarterback is actually pretty elusive. I think he’s showing that more this year than he did last year. He’s making a lot of plays on the run and he’s set up a lot of guys on the perimeter as well.”
Here are some other things to look for when Tennessee visits Kentucky on Halloween:
BOOM’S MILESTONE: Kentucky rushing leader Boom Williams (551 yards) broke 1,000 career yards rushing with his 95-yard effort at MSU. He’s the 35th Wildcat to reach 1,000 and the second to do this season along with backfield mate Jojo Kemp.
FORGET THE STREAK: Tennessee owns the series 77-24-9 and has won three in a row from Kentucky. With both schools chasing bowl bids, Vols coach Butch Jones is urging his team to overlook both numbers against the Wildcats and said, ”We can’t get ourselves focusing on the past and all that. They’re a good football team. We’ve got to focus on the task at hand.”
TOWLES ON TARGET: Kentucky’s junior quarterback needs four yards to become the sixth Wildcat to reach 5,000 career in total offense. Towles, whose 4,681 yards passing and 390 completions each ranks sixth in program history, would join Jared Lorenzen, Andre Woodson, Tim Couch, Mike Hartline and Bill Ransdell in the exclusive group.
TWO DOZEN DOES IT: Tennessee has scored 24 or more points in seven of the past eight meetings with Kentucky. The Volunteers racked up 50 against the Wildcats last year in Knoxville.
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.
AP College Football: collegefootball.ap.org