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Different kind of test awaits improving Cats in Nashville

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Gameday
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Kentucky at Vanderbilt
Sat., Nov. 12 - 12:21 p.m. ET
Lexington, Ky.
Gameday Information
Vanderbilt Stadium
Game Notes: UK Get Acrobat Reader | VU Get Acrobat Reader
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TV: SEC Network
Radio: UK IMG
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UK 2011 Team Stats VU
18.0 Scoring/game 24.8
15.7 First downs/game 15.6
280.4 Total offense/game 340.6
137.0 Rushing yards/game 157.9
143.4 Passing yards/game 133.3
19.9 Kickoff returns (avg) 22.5
1.8 Punt returns (avg) 6.8
39.6 Net punting (avg) 38.2
29:09 Time of possession/game 28:37
31.8 Third down conversion 29.7
40.0 Fourth down conversion 76.9
-2 Turnover margin +3
25.8 Points allowed/game 23.1
391.2 Total yards allowed/game 340.6
197.7 Rush yards allowed/game 133.0
193.6 Pass yards allowed/game 207.6
There have been years in recent memory when Southeastern Conference teams have seen Vanderbilt on the schedule and all but penciled in a win. The Commodores have had their moments, but the rigors of the toughest conference in America have kept Vandy at the bottom of the SEC more often than not.

As Kentucky (4-5, 1-4 SEC) enters its annual matchup with Vanderbilt (4-5, 1-5 SEC), the Wildcats see nothing that would even remotely suggest they can play anything less than their best to pull off a victory.

"Not the old Vanderbilt at all," linebacker Ronnie Sneed said. "The old Vanderbilt didn't put up as much of a fight compared with some other teams. This year they play everybody close."

Vandy may have just one win in six tries in SEC play so far this season, but the Commodores have competed at a high level against even the conference's top powers. Their last three conference games have come against Georgia, Arkansas and Florida and the Commodores have lost none of those games by more than five points. In fact, Vanderbilt had final drives into the opponent's red zone with an opportunity to take the lead in two of the three.

"They're playing and winning the way we draw it up to win, which is rush the ball, stop the run, and takeaway," UK head coach Joker Phillips said. "Doing a really good job. Again, a huge challenge for us but a heck of an opportunity to try to win an SEC game on the road."

As for all the talk about this being a completely different Vanderbilt team, Phillips isn't buying in, but not because he doesn't believe the Commodores are a very good team this season. Phillips has been on the sideline as the two teams have nearly played to a draw on multiple occasions. UK may have won six of eight in the series, but three of those wins have been by a touchdown or less and none by more than 18 points.

"They've always played well," Phillips said. "Just been a hair from winning games, similar to what they're doing this year. They're playing with a lot of excitement, a lot of emotion."

Even so, Vanderbilt is an improved team this season by almost any measure under first-year head coach James Franklin. Getting off to a 3-0 start that included a win over defending Big East champion Connecticut, defense was their calling card.

"Defensively is where you heard about them first early in the season," Phillips said. "They were playing really good, strong defense, taking away the ball."

Even though Vanderbilt features an undersized front line, they create havoc in the backfield and make applying pressure on their quarterback the top priority.

"They're a high pressure team defense," offensive line coach Summers said. "They bring pressure on just about every snap. Their philosophy is to hit your quarterback and against every team they've played, they have done that. It's a huge challenge for us, first of all, to find out where they are, because they're coming from every angle, and then to stay in front of them, because they play with great effort and technique."

The Commodores' pass rush has created 18 sacks on the season and contributed to the 15 interceptions Vandy has nabbed already this season. For a quarterback making just his second career start, Vanderbilt will pose a stern test.

"Vanderbilt is a really good defense," Maxwell Smith said. "They cause a lot of turnovers this year and a lot of havoc in the passing game for a lot of different teams. They're very sound defensively."

For the first time, Smith will be making a start on the road. He has played in hostile environments before at Louisiana State and South Carolina, but being the guy from the opening kickoff makes Saturday unique for him.

"It does a little bit, but those were a lot different circumstances," Smith said. "I'm ready for it and I know it's going to be loud."

Since Smith has taken over at quarterback, the UK defense has benefited significantly from extra rest as the Wildcat offense has moved the ball effectively and consistently. The Cats will need all the rest they can get against a Commodore offense that has come into its own the last four games.

Interestingly, Vanderbilt's quarterback situation is similar to UK's in that original starter Larry Smith, like Morgan Newton, went down with an injury against Alabama a month ago. The job then fell to his inexperienced backup, Jordan Rodgers, who stepped in and grabbed hold of the job. In Rodgers' four starts, Vandy has averaged over 200 yards both rushing and passing and 429.5 yards overall.

"We've had to face this kind of guy the last four weeks really, a guy that could run the zone read, run some option and get on the perimeter," Phillips said. "He probably throws the football better than the other dual guys we've seen. (He) Threw almost 300 yards against the Florida defense."

If the Wildcat defense need an additional reason to pay attention to Rodgers, his pedigree should do the trick. Rodgers' older brother, Aaron, is the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, the reigning Super Bowl MVP and the leader in the clubhouse for this year's regular season NFL MVP.

They may not have quite the name recognition of Rodgers, but running back Zac Stacy and wide receiver Jordan Matthews will demand equal attention. Stacy has rushed for 756 yards with an astounding yards per carry average of 6.9. Matthews has big play potential outside with 438 yards receiving a per catch average of 19.0.

With both teams sitting two wins shy of bowl eligibility, neither squad should be lacking motivation either.

"Both teams are going to be fighting and scratching to get everything they can and win this game," Sneed said. "I think that's what's going to make this a very good matchup."

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