Each week, Rocky Top Insider will take you behind the scenes with a question and answer with a media member who covers Tennessee’s opponent.
This week, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Kentucky beat writer Josh Moore discussed the Wildcats’ strong 2021 season, their new look offense and more.
Question: Kentucky started 6-0 before dropping its last two games. What is the mood around the program entering the Tennessee game? Is there pressure to win this game and save a special season?
Josh: I’d say the mood is still pretty positive, but fans will be miffed if Kentucky loses this game. Losing it wouldn’t be disastrous; UK should still finish 9-3 in the regular season in that case, which is something it’s only done once in my lifetime (I’ll turn 31 next week). So in that context, it’d still be “special,” especially if it can go to a major bowl and win again, as it did following the 2018 season. But, losing to Tennessee would take quite a bit of wind out of fans’ sails, given the relatively lackluster foes remaining on the schedule. UK has one more home game, but for all intents and purposes this is the last chance for the home crowd to really have a good time (it hosts New Mexico State on Nov. 20. Yawn.)
Q: How different is Kentucky’s offense under first year coordinator Liam Coen? How has the offense performed this season?
Josh: Mark Stoops sought to achieve more offensive balance with a change in coordinator, and that’s happened. As far as productivity goes, it’s debatable whether Kentucky’s offense is “better” this year compared to the last couple — it’s relatively similar — but it passes the eye test more in terms of looking like a true offense. With a full season of film and an influx of players recruited for this system as opposed to what was in place before, it should look much better in year two. Wide receiver’s been a position of weakness at UK for a while now, and although Wan’Dale Robinson has been terrific, he’s still just one guy.
Q: How would you assess transfer quarterback Will Levis’ performance this season?
Josh: He’s been okay on the field. Levis makes some questionable decisions at times, especially when he feels rushed in the pocket. There are times when he’s had time to take off and run for a couple yards, or to throw the ball away, and instead forces it to a well-covered receiver; that more times than not has worked out for the Wildcats. As a leader, he’s been an A+. Levis in that regard reminds me of Lynn Bowden, a receiver-turned-quarterback a couple of years ago here. They’re very different players and personalities, but they both have a gravitas about them that I’d imagine is contagious as a teammate.
Q: What have been the strengths and weaknesses of Kentucky’s defense?
Josh: That’s an interesting question, because although it ranks fairly well as a whole, I don’t know that any single unit has impressed as a whole to the point of earning distinction. I suppose the safeties are most deserving of that mention; Yusuf Corker is playing at an All-SEC level, as expected, but Ty Ajian — a late-bloomer who made strides last season — has been quite the player as well. If my life depended on a single UK player, on either side of the ball, to make a play, I’d maybe go with defensive end Josh Paschal, only because his work ethic and determination are unmatched. He’s athletic, but his will is what makes him special. He’s taken on more double teams lately with UK’s defensive line beleaguered by injuries, and that’s lessened his effectiveness a bit in its last two games, but he’s still a grinder who rarely slips up.
Q: Is there a matchup you think Kentucky can exploit against Tennessee or vice versa?
Josh: It seems like Kentucky should be able to get things going on the ground against Tennessee after struggling in that department the last two weeks. The rapidity with which UT runs its offense could be a game-long issue for Kentucky’s defensive front; that group has thinned out considerably since the start of the season and could tire quickly. If Marquan McCall is back as nose tackle, that’s less of a concern, but Stoops has been mum on his health lately, so who knows.
Q: Score Prediction?
Josh: I don’t feel great about it, but ultimately I think home crowd will be a decisive factor.
Kentucky 27, Tennessee 24