Defense is offering hope that ‘a lot of special things can happen’ for Kentucky football

There was plenty of blame to go around in Kentucky football’s 2022 loss to Vanderbilt, but the embarrassment came with extra sting for Maxwell Hairston.

A little-used reserve cornerback a year ago, Hairston was forced onto the field for a fourth-quarter Vanderbilt fourth down when starter Carrington Valentine was briefly sidelined with an injury. While Valentine looked available to return to the game after being attended to by UK trainers, coach Mark Stoops elected not to burn a timeout in order to get him on the field for the fourth down.

Vanderbilt quarterback Mike Wright immediately went after Hairston, connecting on a 40-yard pass to Quincy Skinner that gave the Commodores a first down at the Kentucky 9-yard line.

Three plays later Vanderbilt would score what ended up being the game-winning touchdown.

“I slept on that many nights,” Hairston said Saturday after helping Kentucky avenge that loss. “That one hurt. I just knew this year coming into Vandy that I wasn’t going to let that happen again. I wanted to come better prepared, more confident. I feel like I did that.”

In his rematch with Vanderbilt, Hairston became the first Kentucky player to return multiple interceptions for touchdowns in the same game for any season in which records are available. That also tied an SEC record.

On an afternoon where the offense again battled inconsistency, Hairston’s 29-yard return for a score in the first quarter and 54-yard return in the fourth quarter for another were essential plays on the way to a 45-28 win.

Combined with a third interception from linebacker D’Eryk Jackson that included an improbable lateral to cornerback Andru Phillips to set up a 50-yard return, the Kentucky defense continued its early season penchant for bailing the offense out of middling performances.

“There’s a lot of emotion that’s drained on a defensive touchdown that you’ve got to turn right back around and go back out,” defensive coordinator Brad White said. “That was good. I was happy for Max. I think it helps.”

Kentucky defensive back Maxwell Hairston (31) scores a touchdown on an interception return against Vanderbilt at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville on Saturday.
Kentucky defensive back Maxwell Hairston (31) scores a touchdown on an interception return against Vanderbilt at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville on Saturday.

Through four games, Kentucky’s defense has scored three touchdowns. The special teams have added another score with a kickoff return for a touchdown against Ball State. Three of Kentucky’s offensive scores have come on drives that started inside their opponent’s 31-yard line after a turnover.

Counting on the defense and special teams to provide points or set up short fields would be dangerous as the quality of competition on Kentucky’s schedule increases, starting next week against Florida, but Stoops acknowledged some of the defense’s turnovers have resulted from a tweak of philosophy one year after the Wildcats ranked 86th nationally in turnover margin (minus-3).

“Turnover margin is a big deal,” Stoops said. “I want to continue to be on the plus side of that. It’s super important as we get into SEC play. It’s an area we needed to improve, as we talked a lot about things we needed to improve a year ago.”

After intercepting the ball, Kentucky linebacker D’Eryk Jackson (54) pitches the ball to defensive back Andru Phillips (23), who ran it back for a large gain against Vanderbilt at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville on Saturday.
After intercepting the ball, Kentucky linebacker D’Eryk Jackson (54) pitches the ball to defensive back Andru Phillips (23), who ran it back for a large gain against Vanderbilt at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville on Saturday.

Kentucky is now plus-1 in turnovers on the season. Against Vanderbilt, the Wildcats lost two interceptions but overcame those mistakes thanks in large part to their own ability to force miscues.

“This is a team game,” offensive coordinator Liam Coen said. “It’s all about the team. Are we frustrated? Is it the standard? Yeah, but we are not going to be disappointed about winning on the road. That’s not going to happen.

“You go out and you score 45 points against a good team because the defense makes plays, the offense makes plays and the special teams make plays. We’re not going to apologize for that.”

There will likely be a point in the season where Kentucky’s defense needs the offense to flip the momentum. Improvement is still needed to count on the offense coming through in that situation, but the defense has bought it time to work through early season struggles.

“The defense balled out,” quarterback Devin Leary said. “That’s their standard, though. Those guys come off the field and regardless of what happens on offense they always tell us they’ve got our backs.

“To play for a team like that, to kind of have that camaraderie all around, especially when the defense can kind of pick up the offense and vice versa, a lot of special things can happen.”

Kentucky defensive lineman Deone Walker cheers after helping make a stop against Vanderbilt at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville on Saturday.
Kentucky defensive lineman Deone Walker cheers after helping make a stop against Vanderbilt at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville on Saturday.
Kentucky’s Maxwell Hairston (31) celebrates with teammate J.J. Weaver (13) after returning an interception for a touchdown at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville on Saturday.
Kentucky’s Maxwell Hairston (31) celebrates with teammate J.J. Weaver (13) after returning an interception for a touchdown at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville on Saturday.

Next game

No. 22 Florida at Kentucky

When: Noon Saturday

TV: ESPN

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Florida 3-1 (1-0 SEC), Kentucky 4-0 (1-0)

Series: Florida leads 53-20

Last meeting: Kentucky won 26-16 on Sept. 10, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla.

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