First-year head coach Mark Stoops came to Kentucky with a strong reputation on defense. On Saturday in the annual Governor’s Cup clash with Louisville, fans got a glimpse of why as his unit gave the Wildcats a fighting chance against the seventh-ranked Cardinals and their Heisman hopeful quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater.
“I was proud of the stops. I felt like we had a good plan,” Stoops said after the 27-13 loss. “I felt like our guys were starting to play more aggressive, make them earn their yards.”
The UK defense shined in the first half, led by All-SEC linebacker Avery Williamson and junior college transfer Za’Darius Smith from his end position. Many at Commonwealth Stadium and watching the ESPN national broadcast were shocked at how well the Cats had contained the potent Louisville offense with a 10-3 halftime score.
Williamson finished the day with a game-high 15 tackles, while Smith added to his nation-leading sack total of 4.5 through the first three games of the season.
The Cats also got some big contributions from younger players. Freshman Jason Hatcher was also a big factor in only his third college game, recording four tackles and putting pressure on Bridgewater numerous times.
The Louisville native was recruited to UK as a defensive end, but due to some lackluster play from the Cats’ outside linebackers this season, he got some reps at that position in several packages.
“We just wanted to mix things up a little bit, get a little bigger, have some different looks, get Jason (Hatcher) on the field,” Stoops said.
The former Louisville Trinity star is one of the most highly-rated defensive players to sign with UK in recent years. He had originally committed to USC and also held offers from traditional power programs like Oklahoma and Tennessee.
“Jason is going to continue to play as well. We love Jason,” Stoops said. “He's going to be a very good player. He went through some growing pains a little bit. He did some very good things, but he did some things that he'll get better at.”
While Stoops’ blue-collar brand of defense made the necessary plays in the first half to keep the score in check at 10-3, the UK offense could not take advantage. The Cats labored all afternoon, failing to execute what their head coach described as simple plays.
“Until we start making the routine plays, we're going to have a hard time beating a Top 10 team,” Stoops said. “But had we made routine plays, then we have a chance, better chance than the way it turned out.”
Kentucky went 0-for-13 on third downs, which kept putting its defense back on the field. Inevitably, the unit wore down as Louisville called on its running game to pull away in the second half.
The past 18 winners of the Governor’s Cup have won the battle on the ground. This time it was Louisville who carried the ball 41 times for 242 yards, most of which came in the second half against a defense that lacks depth. Kentucky managed 162 yards on 31 carries.
“We have to pay more attention to details,” UK offensive coordinator Neil Brown said. “We’re growing. We’re not where we need to be, but we’re better.”
Dropped passes were a problem for the UK offense throughout the game, but several members of Stoops’ first recruiting class did flash some potential. Junior college transfer receiver Javess Blue had six catches for 58 yards. He also had a pair of 40-plus kickoff returns to help give the Cats great field position.
Stoops lauded Blue a “big-play guy” after the game.
Fellow newcomer Alex Montgomery, a freshman receiver, scored the Wildcats’ only touchdown of the day with a 3-yard reception from Jalen Whitlow in the fourth quarter. Another freshman, Ryan Timmons, had three catches for 72 yards and could have had much more if a first-half pass from Max Smith had connected for a potential long touchdown pass when Timmons had beaten the defense by a few steps down the seam.
Perhaps the most exciting newcomer for UK was JoJo Kemp, who rushed for 80 yards on five carries and had an electrifying 47-yard run. After the game, Stoops said the Cats have to find more ways to get the Deland (Fla.) native involved with the offense.
Kemp is willing to wait his turn. “Whatever the coaches want, I'm going to do,” he said. “So if they want me to sit on the sideline and root for my team in that first half, then I'm going do so.”
The staff now has two weeks to continue working with their talented newcomers on both sides of the ball before a Sept. 28 matchup with Florida at Commonwealth Stadium.