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UK keeping focus in present for Vandy game

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Patrick Towles will play at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday for the first time since a game against Mississippi State on Oct. 6. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Patrick Towles will play at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday for the first time since a game against Mississippi State on Oct. 6. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
One of the lasting images from the 2011 Kentucky football season was one the Wildcats would rather forget. It was in the final quarter of UK's 38-8 loss at Vanderbilt when running back Zac Stacy carried the ball and multiple members of the Wildcat defense 18 yards for the game's final touchdown.

The Cats remembered anyway, but the week leading up to UK's first game against the Commodores since that defeat has been a reminder of Stacy's bruising run. Players and coaches aren't dwelling on it though.

"Well, we try to keep our eyes forward, rather than our eyes back," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. "We've tried to work on tackling and keeping our legs going and play to the whistle and try to avoid those kind of situations. That's a credit to the runner in that case."

If the Cats are going to take anything from that play or that loss, head coach Joker Phillips wants it to be the way they responded to it. UK followed the Vandy loss with its two best performances of the season, taking Southeastern Conference East champion Georgia to the wire on the road before delivering unquestionably most indelible moment from 2011: Matt Roark being carried off the field after the streak-busting victory over Tennessee.

"I hope we play as good as we did after that game last year," Phillips said. "I thought we played really good, gave ourselves a chance to win against Georgia and actually came back and won the Tennessee game."

Just like last year, the matchup with Vanderbilt comes with three games left in UK's season. This time Kentucky (1-8, 0-5 SEC) wants to start a strong finish to its season against Vanderbilt (4-4, 2-3 SEC) on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium (noon ET, ESPNU) instead of after facing the Commodores.

"Obviously, we're not happy our season's been," Phillips said. "The way to get it corrected is go back on the practice field and go to work, get some guys healthy and continue to forge ahead."

UK has completed the first two steps of that process, going through an intense week of practice and getting as close to healthy as the Cats have been in weeks. Players like Maxwell Smith and Josh Clemons are still out indefinitely and likely for the season, but only Donte Rumph is listed as doubtful heading into this game, an improvement relative to UK's injury-plagued October.

"This would be considered healthy," Phillips said

Players like Martavius Neloms, Mikie Benton and Cody Quinn will all be available, meaning UK will have a full complement of defensive backs. That doesn't mean taking on a diverse Vanderbilt attack will be easy.

The Commodores are two wins shy of reaching bowl eligibility for the second season in a row and have an offense that is producing more than 50 yards more per game than at this time a year ago. Stacy, now Vandy's all-time leading rusher with 2,685 yards, headlines a physical running game, while senior Jordan Rodgers combines passing and running ability at quarterback.

"It's a very good offense," Minter said. "I kind of put Vandy in a category with Western Kentucky, to a degree. Stanford-like, to a degree. They do kind of whatever it takes. They put the guys in there that it takes to be successful at the moment, whether it's 6 offensive linemen, 7 offensive linemen, linemen in the backfield to get bigger at fullback. Those type of things to be creative."

On the other side of the ball, the Commodores - with just eight takeaways - aren't forcing turnovers at the rate they were a year ago, but Vanderbilt allows just 323.3 yards per game, 21st in the NCAA. Vandy has 19 sacks in eight games this season and relies on pressure from all over the field to disrupt the rhythm of opposing quarterbacks.

"Probably the best team we've seen as far as disguising blitzes," Phillips said. "You don't see that until the ball's getting into your hands, so we've got to be able to react to it as quickly as you possibly can."

Vandy's ability to hide blitzes will be a stern test for UK's young signal callers. Freshmen Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles are once again expected to split quarterback duties. After last week - when UK threw for just 78 yards in a loss at Missouri - Commodore blitzes could actually afford more opportunities for Towles and Whitlow to make plays in the air, provided the Cats can recognize them.

"The easiest thing for a young quarterback to play against is blitz," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "As a play-caller, you can help him out. You can max protect, 'throw it to that guy.' When they start showing you the blitz looks and bailing out, that's when as a quarterback you really have to see where they go to, and you have to execute against those things."

Towles, in particular, will be looking for a bounce-back performance. He checked in against Missouri for the third series, following two drives during which UK was effective on the ground. The Tigers then loaded the box to stop the run with Towles in the game and he managed just one completion in four attempts.

"Obviously, it's not very fun, but it's not like I was struggling and I didn't know why I was struggling," Towles said. "I knew the answer to why I was struggling. I'm working on fixing it this week and hopefully Saturday it's going to get better."

With the aim of getting better, Towles has taken the field in practice this week. His opportunities to line up with the first team still number in single digits, so he certainly has a lot of room for improvement.

"I think last week he played, I think it was 14 plays," Sanders said. "I don't remember exactly how many it was against Mississippi State, but it was somewhere along that line before he got injured. So the guy's played a little bit. He's practiced a little bit and he has played a little bit. I hope he'll keep making progress where he can play more."

No matter how much Towles and Whitlow improve, they are still freshman quarterbacks. Given that Phillips has had to start a true freshman at quarterback seven times in UK's last 10 SEC games (and a senior recovering from a shoulder injury, a sophomore who played just two snaps and a senior wide receiver in the other three), he knows where success is going to have to start.

"The thing we have to do is stop the run," Phillips said. "And we've got to run the football offensively to try to match the intensity that these guys are going to come in here and play with."

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