Kentucky defense looks to avoid second-half letdowns

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) – After his team came a little closer than he would have preferred to losing against Central Michigan, Kentucky coach Rich Brooks had to keep reminding himself of a critical fact.

It actually won.

At 3-2 and heading into a key Southeastern Conference game Saturday against Steve Spurrier and South Carolina, the Wildcats are off to their best home start since 2002. It has been nearly 20 years since the team started 4-0 at home.

But, that doesn’t mean Brooks sees no area for improvement. In victories against Central Michigan and Mississippi, as well as a loss at Florida, Kentucky took a first-half lead only to have its defense dominated in the third quarter.

“Offensively we seem to have grown up this year,” Brooks said. “Defensively we still need to grow up. We need to learn how to finish things.”

Kentucky’s defensive players say they can’t explain what causes the team to be dominant early and fade later. They say it’s not fatigue or poor halftime pep talks by the coaching staff.

“We’ve got to not get a big head after we get a big lead,” defensive end Dominic Lewis said.

Despite the second half stumbles, Kentucky’s defense currently leads the nation in fumble recoveries with 10. On Saturday, the Chippewas had eight fumbles, three of which were recovered by the Wildcats.

Cornerback Marcus McClinton was right in the middle of the action with an interception, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble. A couple weeks earlier against Ole Miss, defensive end Myron Pryor pulled off the same feat.

McClinton said the team’s defensive woes later in the game had a lot more to do with one or two big plays than an overall breakdown in the scheme.

“It was a lot of individual mistakes,” McClinton said. “It wasn’t the defense as a whole. Sometimes we had 10 guys where we needed them and there was one guy not doing his job that gets us gassed.”

Brooks said he doesn’t want to put all the blame on the defense. Doing that, he said, would likely mean the offense will stagger next week, as it did in the Florida loss when the defense stepped up.

But, it’s tough to find much fault with the numbers quarterback Andre Woodson has put up so far. He threw for four touchdowns against the Chippewas, giving him 14 on the season, tying him with Florida’s Chris Leak for second in the nation.

The makeshift offensive line, featuring two new starters in Jason Leger and Trai Williams, had its best game of the year, Brooks said. And, both running backs Tony Dixon and Rafael Little appear relatively healthy.

Linebacker Wesley Woodyard said it’s time for the defensive unit to match the success of the offense, particularly as the schedule gets more grueling with six of the final seven games against SEC foes.

“When we get to the third quarter and have gotten a team down, we’ve just got to continue to get better – every play, every snap,” Woodyard said.