The Kentucky football team could do almost nothing wrong in the first half against Vanderbilt. The second half was a different story, yet the Wildcats still improved to 7-3 and clinched sole possession of second in the SEC East with a 34-17 victory over Vanderbilt. There was a lot to love, yet they still left the BBN wanting more in the win.
A Fast, Explosive Start
Kentucky needed to do two things to pick up a victory over Vanderbilt: Start fast and take care of the ball. They did just that and more.
On the first three offensive possessions Kentucky gained 193 yards and averaged 12.1 yards per play on only 16 plays, flipping the script from a week ago against Tennessee. Kentucky finished each drive with a touchdown and connected on three pass plays of 20+ yards.
Will Levis was in the zone. He did not throw an incomplete pass until there was 4:43 left on the clock in the first half when a couple of fade routes into the end zone fell incomplete. Kentucky’s quarterback finished the night 14-of-22 for 177 yards and two touchdowns. He registered an interception when a Hail Mary attempt before half was picked off in the end zone.
Kentucky’s secondary received a ton of justifiable criticism through the Wildcats’ three-game losing streak, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete more than 80% of their passes while scoring more than 35 points per game. Searching for a spark, Brad White’s crew got exactly that from Jalen Geiger.
The third-year player earned his first start and did not disappoint. Playing strong safety, he filled a gap on third down, nearly forcing a punt. One play later he opened the floodgates for the Cats, picking off a pass and taking it 31 yards into the end zone.
The big play from the defense gave UK a comfortable 21-3 lead. The defense put their foot on the gas, limiting Vanderbilt to less than four yards per play in the first half.
Josh Paschal is a Bad Man
Geiger was not the only disruptor on the UK defense. Josh Paschal continued to play at an elite level by consistently wreaking havoc in the backfield. The senior recorded seven tackles and two sacks. The defense totaled four sacks on the night (the third most of the year) and six tackles for loss, two from Justin Rogers, much to the delight of Marquan McCall.
Promising Play from McClain
Chris Rodriguez played like one of the best running backs in the country, par for the course. He had 90 rushing yards by halftime. His night ended a few plays into the second half, finishing with 114 yards on 16 carries (7.1 yards per carry) and a touchdown.
Rodriguez passed the baton to JuTahn McClain. The Cincinnati native entered the year with lofty expectations, but off the field issues and an injury slowed his progress. Tonight we saw what McClain can give to the Wildcats in the future. He averaged 6.9 yards per carry on only ten touches, including an impressive 22-yard run.
Aggravating Vanderbilt Drives
Trailing 31-3 at halftime, Vanderbilt played with nothing to lose and a different quarterback under center. After Ken Seals took a beating, Mike Wright entered the game and changed the Vanderbilt offense.
A running quarterback, Wright extended plays just long enough to keep the chains moving. The Commodores were three-of-five on third downs in the second half. The only two third downs they did not convert turned into fourth down touchdown passes. Simply put, Kentuckys defense could not get off the field, a theme throughout the three-game losing streak.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage, Stoops took his foot off the gas. Kentucky kept it on the ground and Levis only attempted eight passes in the second half. The Cats could not keep drives alive, converting just 3-of-7 third downs.
To truly see the difference between the first half and the second half, just take a look at the box scores, particularly the yards per play column.
A Much Needed Win
Even though the second half may have left a bad taste in the BBN’s mouth, Kentucky did what they needed to get a win. Reeling from a three-game losing streak, Liam Coen’s offense continued to create explosive plays while the defense produced much-needed big plays that will give Brad White’s unit some confidence entering the homestretch of the season. Kentucky concluded SEC play with a winning record and a 9-3 finish is still on the table.