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Kentucky Dominating on Defense

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Defensively, the Wildcats are playing as well as any unit in the game.

It's natural to look at Kentucky's impressive 5-0 start and focus solely on running back Benny Snell, Jr., a leading Heisman Trophy candidate with 664 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. That said, few teams are doing what the Wildcats are defensively. Kentucky is currently tied atop the SEC with Auburn, allowing just 12.6 points per game. The Wildcats, by a number of different measures, have one of the best defenses in all of college football.

Washington and Cincinnati are the only teams giving up fewer points per game than Kentucky. One of the touchdowns scored on the Wildcats was a scoop-and-score by Central Michigan's defense in the opener. Another, in a convincing win over FCS Murray State, came with less than a minute remaining. In SEC play, Kentucky has surrendered merely 33 total points in three outings, two of them, at Florida and against Mississippi State, coming against nationally-ranked foes. The Bulldogs and South Carolina both reached the endzone just once. 

Even having already settled into the strength of their schedule, the Wildcats are one of only 12 defenses in the country allowing less than 289 yards per game. Kentucky has played with great balance defensively and joins Appalachian State, Clemson, Georgia, Iowa, Miami and Michigan as the only units to rank in the top 29 nationally in both rush and pass defense. Just 33% of opponent's trips into the Wildcats' redzone are resulting in touchdowns. Furthermore, Kentucky has given up just one play of 40 yards or more.       

The Wildcats have made life miserable on opposing quarterbacks. Kentucky has the best pass defense rating in Power Five football, ranked behind only Cincinnati overall. Collectively, signal callers are completing merely 50.6% of their passes, averaging just 5.2 yards per attempt and have thrown six interceptions compared to three touchdowns. Ground games aren't doing much better as the Wildcats have given up only three rushing scores. 

Among other standouts, athletic edge Josh Allen is the defensive catalyst and has developed into a preeminent All-American candidate. Projected as an upcoming first round NFL Draft pick at 6'5'', 250 pounds, he is tied for the national lead with 10.5 tackles for loss and paces the SEC in sacks with six. Allen recorded eight total tackles, four tackles for loss and three sacks in Kentucky's 24-10 triumph over South Carolina this weekend, earning league defensive player of the week honors.

Since 2000, Allen is the only SEC defender with at least ten tackles for loss, six sacks and two forced fumbles through the first five games of a season.

Additionally, linebacker Kash Daniel and safety Darius West are two of the league's leading tacklers, with West tying Georgia's Deandre Baker for the most passes defended in the conference. With the likes of accomplished seniors Allen and West, Derrick Baity, Jr. at cornerback, Mike Edwards at safety and Jordan Jones at linebacker, all of whom have received league-wide recognition, this is a polished, veteran group. These Wildcats have talent, experience and, as proven, the confidence to step up in the spotlight.   

A physical football team that leads the league in rushing and is tied for first in scoring defense, Kentucky is winning in the mold of head coach Mark Stoops, formerly the defensive coordinator at Florida State, Arizona and Houston. His defensive coordinator Matt House has taken the Wildcat defense to a new level in his second season in charge and third on staff. Previously the defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh and FIU, House has helped reinforce the fundamentals at Kentucky. The Wildcats are playing as well as any unit in the game.  

Ranked as high as 13th in the national polls, Kentucky has emerged as a contender. The defense is playing at a championship level; the Wildcats are allowing 288.8 yards per game, currently less than defending SEC Champion Georgia did, at 294.9, a season ago. Saturday night in College Station will be another big test for red-hot Big Blue and, correspondingly, another big opportunity.

Entering October, Kentucky is part of the national conversation; a dominant defense is a key reason why.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports