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UK Defense Leads Wildcats Over Vanderbilt, Ends SEC Losing Streak at 17

Kentucky’s offense giveth opportunities to Vanderbilt, and Kentucky’s defense taketh them back.

At least that’s how it was on Saturday, as the Wildcats skidded their way to a 17-7 victory over the Commodores in Commonwealth Stadium. On a day when Patrick Towles threw an interception and fumbled three times (Kentucky lost two of four fumbles overall), the Cats’ defense was the team’s saving grace. The “bad boys,” as Kentucky’s defenders have been calling themselves since fall camp, made play after play to bail out Kentucky and maintain a 10-point victory – its first win in the SEC since 2011.

If not for one of those Towles interceptions being run back nine yards for a pick-six, Kentucky would have kept a goose egg on Vanderbilt’s side of the scoreboard. Still, the Wildcats’ defense has not allowed a first-half touchdown all year. Opponents now average 15 points a game against Kentucky, and that’s including a three-overtime game against Florida. Vanderbilt only managed 139 total yards on Saturday (54 rushing, 85 passing).

“Bad boys,” indeed.

“I think that our guys right now have an attitude and mentality and confidence about them that will go a long way for us,” said Kentucky defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot.

“It’s the bad boy mentality,” said sophomore nickel back Blake McClain, who finished with two tackles and a sack on Saturday. “Having swagger, having fun out there. That’s what it really comes down to. When you play football, you can’t forget that it’s a fun game. You’ve been playing since a little kid.”

And when the interceptions and sacks are raining in, so do the laughs and chest bumps on this defense.

There were times on Saturday when it looked like Vanderbilt might come back and spoil Kentucky’s bid to snap its 17-game conference losing streak.

The Kentucky offense stalled early in the second half and its first three drives in the third quarter ended in punts, as it held onto the 17-7 halftime lead. But safety Ashely Lowery and defensive tackle Cory Johnson combined for a sack of Vandy quarterback Wade Freebeck to end one subsequent Vanderbilt drive; Johnson pressured Freebeck again on the next drive, leading to an incompletion and a punt; and the Commodores were forced to punt again late in the third quarter after managing only four snaps.

Freebeck completed just eight of 25 pass attempts (with three interceptions), good for only 85 yards.

And the fourth quarter was more of the same: safety Marcus McWilson tipped a Freebeck pass to himself and returned it to the Commodores’ 45-yard-line.

Towles fumbled on the next play, but his defense once again took away Vanderbilt’s chance to capitalize on the Cats’ turnover. AJ Stamps snagged an interception over the middle and returned it to the Kentucky 44-yard-line.

Even Kentucky’s special teams mistakes were negated by the defense. After a Demarco Robinson muffed punt with less than six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Freebeck threw two incompletions before succumbing to the Kentucky secondary, again. Lowery picked off Freebeck to keep Vanderbilt from cutting into the Cats’ lead. That interception was Kentucky’s third of the night, which matches the team’s interceptions total for all of last season.

“Schemes I guess,” said defensive end Bud Dupree when asked why the defense had been performing so well this year. “Everyone is doing their jobs and no one’s being selfish. Everyone’s making plays, not just one person.”

And while Eliot had credited the team’s attitude and work ethic for its success this season, equal credit could probably be given to his and Stoops’ (a defensive mind himself) game plans.

“I think it’s more of us knowing what’s going on right now,” said junior linebacker Josh Forrest. “Especially with Coach (Rick) Minter (former defensive coordinator), a lot of us didn’t really know what was going on. Now we’re starting to understand it – concepts and things like that.”

Eliot dialed up several timely safety blitzes on Saturday, as he’s been doing all season. Those kinds of schemes make it fun for the players, according to McClain. And with that fun comes the attitude changes, and the shutouts.

“I love it, I love it,” McClain said of the defense. “I tell Coach Eliot every day I see him, I say, ‘Hey, when in doubt, send the blitz.’ I love it, I love it, I love it.”

So do Kentucky fans. Because listening to the “Bad Boys” soundtrack at Commonwealth Stadium is fun for the fans, but even more so when that track is relevant to the play on the field.

Ashley Scoby is a senior journalism major at the University of Kentucky. She has reported on the Wildcats for wildcathoops.com, vaughtsviews.com and kysportsreport.com as well as for newspapers in Danville and Glasgow. This article originally appeared at KY Forward.

Photo: Kentucky Wildcats safety Marcus McWilson (15) had one of his team’s three interceptions Saturday, keying a 17-7 win over Vanderbilt (UK Athletics Photo/Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports)