Thursday, September 19, 2002

Kentucky defense making plays, winning games

AP Sports Writer

        LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky tailback Artose Pinner remembers a time in the not too distant past when he dreaded watching the defense run out onto the field.

        More often than not, he wouldn't have time to get his helmet off, drink some water and catch his breath before the offense would be called back after an opponent had scored.

        “We knew they were trying, but there was a lot of pressure on us offensively,” he said. “We felt like if we didn't score 40 points a game, we weren't going to have a chance to win.”

        These days, Kentucky's defense is not only keeping the team in games, it's making big plays and helping to win them.

        “The times we've struggled to move the ball this season, the defense has done something to get us going,” wide receiver Aaron Boone said. “We wouldn't be where we are right now if it wasn't for the strides we've made defensively.”

        Where the Wildcats are now is a surprising 3-0 for the first time in four years. They'll take on Middle Tennessee on Saturday for the chance to go 4-0 for the first time since 1994.

        “The overall attitude of the whole team has changed, especially defensively,” junior cornerback Leonard Burress said. “We've all gained a great deal of confidence, and we truly believe that we can compete with anybody that's on our schedule.”

        Kentucky became known for its high-octane passing attack and high-scoring losses in four seasons under Hal Mumme, who believed a defense was just something to trot out onto the field to give the offense a break.

        Mumme's departure in the wake of internal and NCAA investigations that turned up dozens of recruiting violations, however, brought immediate changes in philosophy.

        Defensive coordinator John Goodner was lured from Baylor, where he helped build punishing defenses and coached current NFL veterans Santana Dotson and Daryl Gardener.

        Goodner also crafted defensive units at Texas Tech that developed three first-team All Americans in linebacker Zach Thomas, defensive back Marcus Coleman and defensive end Montae Reagor.

        Goodner said he believes his current group is moving in the right direction, improving every time it steps on the field.

        “We're not where we want to be yet by any means, but the effort is there,” Goodner said. “And when you have that effort mixed with confidence and a little bit of success, the sky is the limit.”

        Kentucky gave up 405 yards and 35 points per game in 2000, when it finished 2-9 in Mumme's final season. Last year, the 2-9 Wildcats gave up 475 yards and 34 points per game with Goodner aboard.

        This year, however, the defense — which languished at the bottom of the Division I rankings in its previous two seasons — has allowed 338 yards and only 17 points per game.

        Senior linebacker Morris Lane said players are much more comfortable with Goodner's aggressive scheme this season.

        “Anything that is different is kind of tough at the beginning, and we struggled some as we tried to learn what was expected of us,” Lane said. “Now, with a year under our belts, everybody knows what they're doing and what the guys beside them are doing.

        “But its beyond X's and O's. Coach Goodner is a great guy. You see how hard he works and how badly he wants us to improve. It makes you want to go out and play hard for him.”

        That comfort zone has enabled the team to make the big plays that eluded them in past seasons.

        Kentucky is tied for second in the Southeastern Conference and tied for 12th nationally in turnover margin at plus-6 with five fumble recoveries and three interceptions.

        In the team's 22-17 victory over then-No. 17 Louisville, the defensive front — led by talented tackles Jeremy Caudill and Dewayne Robertson — battered quarterback Dave Ragone every time he dropped back to pass.

        The Wildcats finished the game with two fumble recoveries, an interception, three sacks and the first victory over their archrival in four seasons.

        Last week against Indiana, senior safety Quentus Cumby's 82-yard interception return for a touchdown with 2:36 to play sealed a 27-17 victory.

        “It gets more and more fun as our confidence level grows,” said defensive end Vincent “Sweet Pea” Burns, a transfer from Northern Arizona who has made an immediate impact in his first season with 17 tackles and two fumble recoveries.

        “And as your confidence level grows, you get more and more likely to take chances and make some big plays. I think you're going to see even more of that as the season goes on.”

        That sounds great to Pinner, the Southeastern Conference's leading rusher with 344 yards entering Saturday's game against the Blue Raiders.

        “I know I have confidence now that our defense is going to step up and make plays,” he said.

        “Against Indiana, I know a lot of the offensive players felt like we didn't play up to the defense's standards because we put them in a lot of bad situations. That's just more evidence of how much things are changing around here.”


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