Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s 45-28 victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville:
1. Brad White’s big-play defense produces big plays
No other Wildcats defender had ever done it. Not Art Still. Not Josh Allen. Not Mike Edwards or Trevard Lindley or Darryl Bishop or Larry Carter or any other defensive player in a Kentucky football uniform. No Wildcat had ever returned two interceptions for a touchdown in a single game.
Maxwell Hairston did it Saturday. The 6-foot-1, 181-pound sophomore from West Bloomfield, Michigan, produced not one but two pick-six scores, highlighting defensive coordinator Brad White’s big-play defense — D’Eryk Jackson can take a bow, too — that helped Kentucky overcome some offensive lulls and improve to 4-0 overall and 1-0 in the SEC.
Hairston’s first steal-and-score came just six minutes into the contest when Vanderbilt quarterback AJ Swann felt the heat of a UK pass rush led by Trevin Wallace and J.J. Weaver. Hurrying his throw, Swann’s pass sailed to the left sideline where Hairston jumped the route, snatched the errant pass and proceeded untouched 29 yards for a touchdown and an early 14-0 UK lead.
MAXWELL HAIRSTON!!! Picks off Vandy’s QB and takes it to the house for a pick 6 It’s his second interception of the season + the first touchdown of his college career
Cats up 14-0 with 8:14 to play in the first pic.twitter.com/Bh1ww52jVU
— BBN Tonight (@BBNTonight) September 23, 2023
Hairston’s second score came in the fourth quarter when the sophomore intercepted another Swann throw and weaved over, under and around Vandy tacklers — “I give (my blockers) all the credit for paving the way for me to run,” he said later — for a 54-yard score.
“I just feel blessed,” said Hairston, who experienced some struggles last season as a freshman. “I got to thank the man upstairs for blessing me, being able to do that. I want to thank my team. We did what we were supposed to do and we got rewarded for it.”
As big as Hairston’s scores were in the final outcome, Jackson’s interception might have been even more important. After jumping to a 24-0 lead, Kentucky saw Vandy slice the advantage to 24-13 in the third quarter when Jackson intercepted a Swann pass, then lateraled the ball to teammate Andru Phillips, who raced all the way to the Vandy 11-yard line. Three plays later, Ray Davis scored from a yard out to push UK’s lead back out to 31-13.
“The offense was struggling a little bit, and we’re a team so we got to help,” Jackson said. “We were giving up some plays, so we needed a big play. We needed a turnover.”
2. Kentucky’s offense showed what it can and can’t do
Liam Coen’s offense started hot. First UK series, JuTahn McClain burst up the middle for a 36-yard touchdown. Third possession, quarterback Devin Leary found Nashville native Barion Brown down the left sideline for a 55-yard gain that set up a 1-yard Davis run for a 21-0 lead.
Two possessions after that, Leary took off on a 22-yard scramble that set up a 27-yard Alex Raynor field goal to make it 24-0 Kentucky with 4:53 left in the first half.
“I felt pretty good about the way things were going,” Coen said Saturday. “Hit a little bit of a lull obviously in the second quarter that felt like it lasted an eternity.”
UK’s offense again suffered from fits and starts. A roller coaster, Coen called it. There were too many failed run plays. Too many penalties. Too many slips on the turf at FirstBank Stadium.
Kentucky ended up with just 365 yards of total offense. Leary was inconsistent, going 15 of 29 for 205 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. “I have to do better,” he said.
“Honestly, if were clicking on all cylinders right now,” Coen said, “is there anything more to coach? At the end of the day, it’s a good thing, but it’s also something we’ve got to get cleaned up and get cleaned up fast.”
That’s one way of looking at the situation. It was Brad White who said afterward, “The good news is that we’re 4-0 and we haven’t played a complete game yet.”
Same goes for the offense.
3. It only gets tougher from here on out
Stoops and Coen both said they were never going to apologize for an SEC road win. There’s no reason to apologize. Remember, as a 17-point underdog, Vanderbilt beat Kentucky 24-21 at Kroger Field last season. UK was a 13.5-point favorite this time around and won by 17.
Still, everyone knows the “gauntlet” is just beginning. Florida looked like a different Florida in its 29-16 win over Tennessee last Saturday at The Swamp. You know the Gators want to snap that two-game losing streak to Kentucky. A road win in Lexington by Billy Napier’s team would build on the momentum from the Tennessee victory.
To beat the Gators, Kentucky can’t afford the offensive lulls it slipped into Saturday. It’ll need a better, more precise game by Leary. It’ll need better blocking up front from an offensive line that showed a different look at Vandy with Eli Cox moving back to center (where he started last year) and Jager Burton moving back to right guard (where he started last year).
This feels like a coaching staff still learning about its players. And it feels like players still learning how to play clean, consistent football for four quarters. That hasn’t happened yet. Considering the strength of the slate ahead, it needs to start happening.
Still, with conference play underway, Saturday was a good start.