The Kentucky Wildcats. You’ve heard of them. You’ve probably even seen them play a game or two. But are you an expert of the Fightin’ Mark Stoopses? Of course not. Neither am I. So we brought in a ringer.
Jason Marcum is an editor at SB Nation’s excellent Kentucky site, A Sea of Blue. He’s also an accomplished jazz xylophonist*, passable Vince Vaughn impersonator** and, reputedly, Ashley Judd’s third favorite sports writer***. Jason agreed to catch us up on the ‘Cats health, what Penn State transfer Will Levis has meant to the team, and what it feels like to be able to make fun of Florida and Tennessee for being basketball schools. We hope you enjoy his insights.
MD: By this point in the season everyone is banged up. But Kentucky has played several physical football games in a row now. What is Big Blue’s injury situation as they head to Athens?
JM: Unfortunately, two of Kentucky’s best defenders will be out this week in nose guard Marquan McCall and defensive tackle Octavious Oxendine. McCall is an old school run-stuff in the middle that makes it hard for any team to run against, while Oxendine gets a lot of penetration in the backfield and was actually just named Co-SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week in the same game he tore his meniscus in, so he’s out for the rest of the season. The good news is backups Josaih Hayes, Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald and Justin Rogers have played well, but they haven’t faced a team like Georgia this week, so I’m admittedly concerned if Kentucky’s defensive line has the depth to hold up vs. Georgia for four quarters.
On offense, starting wideout Josh Ali is out for another week or two. He’s not Kentucky’s top option, but Ali’s presence helps keep defenses from heavily focusing their coverage on Wan’Dale Robinson. In last week’s win over LSU, Robinson caught eight passes, but no one else had more than two catches. It will be interesting to see if Georgia can contain Robinson and force Kentucky’s offense to find other options in the passing game.
MD: Will Levis has been a media sensation, personally reshaping the way Americans enjoy their bananas. But what has his presence meant for the Kentucky offense?
JM: The biggest thing with Levis is he’s been a tremendous leader on and off the field. He’s also earned his teammates’ respect with his willingness to run right into the heart of the defense when his team needs a play in the worst way. His big arm helps keep the field stretched, but his running ability also leads to several big plays on the ground each game. Bo Nix was able to do better vs. Georgia’s defense than most because of his ability to make plays through the air and on the ground, so there’s hope that Levis can do something similar but more effective this week.
MD: Kentucky currently sits dead last in the SEC in turnover margin by a fair bit. Is that worrisome? Is it just part of opening up the offense?
JM: It’s not as worrisome now after Kentucky committed just one turnover over the last two games. Mark Stoops’ teams are typically pretty good with the turnover margin, so the first four games where they couldn’t hold on to the ball was hopefully just an aberration.
MD: Enough offense talk. Kentucky sits 3rd in the SEC right now in total defense and 4th in scoring defense. What’s been the key to that success, and who are the players on that unit who will need to step up this Saturday?
JM: It’s been wild to watch how far this defense has come since getting stressed by Missouri and struggling to even slow down Chattanooga, but this has actually become common; struggling early in the season defensively before coming on strong. They don’t have a lot of obvious stars and future NFL players, but they consistently have all 11 guys playing complementary football.
The big name to watch for is Josh Paschal. He’s been an absolute force along the defensive line and has wreaked havoc in a lot of backfields this season. He also blocked a field goal vs. Florida as UK lets him loose on special teams as well. How well he performs against Georgia’s offensive line is easily one of the biggest battles to watch this week.
JJ Weaver is Kentucky’s top edge rusher but is also capable of dropping into coverage and had a big INT vs. Florida. He has the potential to be a future NFL starter as a 3-4 outside linebacker in my opinion, and he’s not even a full year removed from his ACL tear in 2020.
DeAndre Square is usually Kentucky’s top tackler and is good at getting pressure up the middle when he occasionally blitzes. He’s a complete linebacker and should be playing on Sundays in 2022.
MD: Fill in the blank: Kentucky pulls the upset and takes control of the SEC East if they ______.
JM: Don’t turn the ball over, have sustained offensive drives that eat up clock, force Stetson Bennett to beat you, and get at least one defensive/special teams touchdown. It’s hard to see any offense in America scoring enough on their own to beat Georgia, so Kentucky will likely need to find points elsewhere to make this a four-quarter ballgame.
MD: How does it feel to be a football school?
JM: It’s been nice. It’s kinda crazy to think the big game Kroger Field atmosphere has surpassed the big game Rupp Arena atmosphere, but that’s where UK is at now. The atmosphere for the Florida game was probably one of the best that UK has ever seen in any sport.
MD: Because we must: what is your score prediction?
JM: I think Kentucky will manage to keep it closer than many expect, but I just don’t see anyone beating this Dawgs team the way they’re playing right now. I’m going Georgia 30, Kentucky 13.
Thanks to Jason for swinging by. As always, let’s play nice, and hope both teams have fun.
*Seems fairly unlikely.
**For his sake I hope this isn’t accurate.
***It’s well-known that Ashley, like Wynonna, is a huge fan of DaveTheDawg, but I have no idea who finished second.