Kentucky defense faces stiff test in Top 25 game vs Georgia
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — No. 11 Kentucky has been dominating opponents defensively this season.
Kentucky (7-1, 5-1 Southeastern Conference, No. 9 CFP) hosts the Bulldogs (7-1, 5-1, No. 6 CFP) on Saturday in a nationally televised showdown that will decide the SEC Eastern division. The Wildcats have the nation's top scoring defense, giving up 13 points per game and just 12.3 in league play. They haven't allowed more than 20 points all season, though the Wildcats are facing a Bulldogs offense averaging 38.6 points per outing.
"They're just ballers up front," senior linebacker Josh Allen said of Georgia. "They can run the ball really well, and their quarterback's real efficient. They're real balanced on everything.
"We're going to have a good challenge up front, but I like our odds, I like how we've been practicing and I like the scheme we have to affect them."
Kentucky's multiple looks from a 3-4 alignment have worked all season and particularly after halftime, when it has allowed just 33 points. Those defensive shutdowns have either preserved slim leads or created opportunities for the Wildcats' offense to overcome slow starts and close strong, which they first showed in their 27-16 upset at Florida in September.
While that victory jump-started Kentucky's best start in 41 years, last week's impressive defensive effort at Missouri is why it's playing for a possible trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship.
Trailing 14-3 at halftime and sputtering on both sides of the ball, the defense regrouped to hold the high-octane Tigers without a first down on eight second-half possessions. Kentucky was finally able to rally in the fourth quarter with Lynn Bowden's 67-yard punt return for a touchdown before quarterback Terry Wilson drove the team 81 yards and throw his game-winning 2-yard TD pass on an untimed down with time expired for the improbable 15-14 victory .
"We held ourselves to a standard that we gave up too much in the first half and I'll take a lot of blame for that," junior linebacker Kash Daniel said. "We came out in the second half and said we've got to stop this, stop that and play our defense. We did that and the results speak for themselves."
Though Kentucky expected its veteran defense to lead its quest toward becoming a league contender, several players have gained attention for turning the unit into the SEC's second best at 295.3 yards per game.
Allen (56 tackles) returned for a final season to boost his NFL draft prospects and has become arguably the SEC's most disruptive defender. His 10 sacks — including two last week — and 14.5 stops for loss lead the conference, while his handful of pass breakups demonstrate his all-over-the-field play.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Allen is the "total package" this week, adding, "You've got to know where he is at all times. He's what you want when you design a 3-4 defense. He's your prototype guy, and he has been disruptive to everyone in this conference."
Free safety Darius West is tied for second with three interceptions and 12th with 58 tackles. Daniel (54 tackles) and senior Jordan Jones (46) have complemented Allen with similarly aggressive play.
Slowing Georgia's balanced attack will require increased intensity by Kentucky. The Bulldogs feature a strong-armed quarterback in sophomore Jake Fromm (16 touchdowns, 67 percent completion rate) along with their latest impressive rushing tandem in Elijah Holyfield and D'Andre Swift. That duo has combined for more than 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns.
It's a potent mix to contain, but the Wildcats feel up to the challenge.
Said Kentucky senior safety Mike Edwards, "We've got to come out and play as best we can."