Ohio heads on down to SEC country this weekend for a battle of the cats as the Bobcats of Ohio take on the Wildcats of Kentucky. To get a better understanding of what Ohio fans should expect Saturday, we chatted with A Sea of Blue contributor Will Marshall.
Hustle Belt: What are Wildcat fans expecting of Mark Stoops and crew in 2013?
Will Marshall: Ultimately, UK fans want to see improvement on the field. What that means will vary, but I think it's safe to say 4 wins is the lower threshold for most fans in 2014. UK fans know the state of the program, and realize a bowl game won't happen this season, but hope this season serves as a bridge to greater things in the next season.
HB: Is there any fear of this week being a letdown game in Lexington? Ohio is thought by most to be down this year, and with superior talent, do the folks in the Bluegrass think they'll walk away with this one?
WM: I don't think UK's team can approach any opponent lightly, and the coaching staff and likely the players know this. I would be surprised, and very troubled, if the players took Ohio lightly, especially because this roster has upperclassmen who lost to Western Kentucky in 2013 and 2012. A quick glance at message boards makes it apparent some UK fans have already chalked in Ohio as a victory, and thankfully they won't have any say in the preparation or outcome of Saturday's game.
HB: Last week's win over UT-Martin was dominating. What does UK have to do similarly against Ohio to achieve the same results?
WM: Ohio will be a much better team than UT-Martin, so what UK did well last Saturday will be harder to accomplish. I think UK's offense will attempt to keep a high tempo that balances the run and pass. Quarterback Patrick Towles will need to make the right reads, and get the ball in the hands of his play-makers just as he largely did last weekend. Defensively, I suspect UK will open up the playbook a little bit more. They'll have to contain Ohio's mobile quarterback, and continuing causing turnovers.
HB: Braylon Heard and Patrick Towles both had stellar games last weekend. Are these the two guys Ohio will be looking to stop this Saturday? Or are there other Wildcat offensive players that Jimmy Burrow and the Ohio defense need to be wary of?
WM: Heard is a stud, and Ohio will need to key on him. UK also has other proven running backs in Jojo Kemp and Josh Clemons that can be dangerous. UT-Martin focused on stopping the run, and that opened up the passing lanes for Towles. If UK has success running the ball against Ohio, that will be beneficial to Towles because I don't think he's quite ready to win games on his own just yet.
Towles top targets are Ryan Timmons and Javess Blue. Both are very dangerous and will stress Ohio's secondary. Blue played sparingly against UT-Martin with a slight ankle tweak, but will get more reps this week to continue building chemistry with Towles heading into SEC play.
HB: Even in the dominating victory (in terms of points), UT-Martin still nearly racked up 400 yards of offense. Where is it that the Bobcats can exploit the Wildcats?
WM: A lot of those yards came in the second half against UK's back-ups, but the point is well taken because Ohio's offense will challenge UK's first team defense. UK's biggest weakest right now is in stopping the run, specifically power runs. UK plays undersized linebackers who are more adept defending the pass than the run, and our pass-rushing specialists Alvin Dupree and Za'Darius Smith are classic run-stoppers either. Arguably, UK's best run defenders play in the secondary.
I think UK's biggest concern is in containing Derrius Vick and Ohio's power running game led by an excellent interior offensive line. UK's defense probably feels confident causing turnovers after the five they came up with last weekend, and will target Ohio's running backs who had four (?) fumbles against Kent State. A few turnovers will cancel out Ohio's success running the ball.
HB: So this Kentucky team goes 3-4 and 4-3 defensively and switches between the two often, but without much blitzing or complexity. What does defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot have in mind, considering how, by your own assessment, UK played pretty "Vanilla." Also: should Ohio fear A.J. Stamps deep?
WM: I think Elliot and Stoops will have to employ a more complex defense this weekend against Ohio. I suspect there will be more stunting along the defensive line, and more disguising of coverages. They will continue to alternate between the 4-3 and 3-4 fronts, while mixing in a nickel package. UK will hope to generate a pass rush from Dupree and Smith, allowing their linebackers to contribute to underneath coverage or spy on Vick in case he scrambles. I am interested to see if blitzes continue from the nickel back position, and I'd be surprised if there aren't a few linebacker or free safety blitzes this weekend too. Then again, UK plays Florida the following weekend, and ideally will want to hold some things back. I doubt UK will come up with a new scheme for Ohio, and will hope to just beat them playing fundamental football.
AJ Stamps is for real. He was a little known JUCO who enrolled early, and reportedly Ohio State also made him a commitable offer, but he wanted to play right away. In the spring game he and Heard were easily the most impressive players on the field, and that has only continued. He's a solid run stopper, and his one-handed INT displayed his closing speed and athleticism. Ohio should definitely respect him, but I doubt they will scheme around him either.
HB: So what do you predict the score will be and who do you expect to be difference makers?
WM: I have a lot of respect for Frank Solich and the program he's built at Ohio. Having said that, I think UK wins 34-17 on the back of big plays from Heard, Timmons, Kemp, and Blue. I also think UK wins the turnover battle. Meanwhile, Ohio likely wins a lot of battles in the trenches on both sides of the ball. UK's offense will struggle in short yardage situations against the Bobcats' defensive line, and Ohio will have success running the ball. I just don't think those successes are enough to keep up with UK's output. I suspect a competitive game that will be mutually beneficial for both programs for the rest of each team's seasons ahead.
To check out what ASOB asked about Ohio, head on over to their site.