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© Randy Sartin | USATSI

Kentucky’s loss to Tennessee makes a bad week worse

© Randy Sartin | USATSI

What an awful week to be a Kentucky fan.

Eight days ago, the fervor in the Big Blue Nation reached a crescendo as the football Cats had a historic opportunity to win the SEC East and the basketball team was primed for a big season, starting with a top five showdown with Duke. My, what a difference a week makes. Kentucky’s loss to Georgia was humbling, but understandable; the Bulldogs were simply better. The loss to Duke was jarring; the Blue Devils didn’t just beat the Cats, they humiliated them in front of a national audience.

A lackluster win over Southern Illinois kept the train from going off the rails, but today was supposed to be the day Kentucky got its mojo back. A date with a bad Tennessee team that put up only 14 points and 20 rushing yards vs. Charlotte seemed like just the thing to right the ship. Instead, Kentucky lost 24-7, and it wasn’t even that close. The team that started the season off so well and had us all dreaming big couldn’t seem further away. Usually the aggressor, Mark Stoops’ squad looked meek, a refrain that’s been all too common in both sports this week.

Given the offense’s woes this season, we knew Kentucky couldn’t afford a slow start. Unfortunately, they had one, falling behind 3, 10, 17-0 in the first half, the Hail Mary by Jarrett Guarantano at the horn an especially cruel punch in the gut. In 15 plays in the second quarter, Kentucky got one yard. One! It was that bad, and although the Cats managed to score in the second half, the Vols easily kept the rally at bay.

What went wrong? A lot, but you have to start with the offensive line. One of Kentucky’s strengths earlier this season, the line didn’t give the offense much of a chance to do anything. The Cats rushed for only 77 yards, down 123 yards from their season average, to a Tennessee team that has been giving up 161 rushing yards per game. Benny Snell was held under 100 yards for the third straight game despite having 20 carries. Terry Wilson was 21-34 for 172 yards, a touchdown, and an interception, and that’s actually not bad given how little help his line and receivers were giving him. Gone is the “Big Blue Wall” that swapped SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week awards. On the flip side, a Tennessee team that was last in the SEC in rushing offense (127.7 rushing yards per game) ran for 215 yards this afternoon. Ouch.

The play calling deserves criticism, but ultimately, it comes down to execution; execution comes down to discipline, and it feels like the number of errors the Cats made tonight outweighed the positives. Drops by the wide receivers. A fumbled snap. Missed opportunities in the secondary. Benny not hitting the holes in the rare instances they were actually there. That bizarre unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on every single player on the field. The missed field goal by Chance Poore sucked, but it was 51 yards and the least of Kentucky’s problems. The defense did its best to give the offense an opportunity to narrow the gap, but it felt like nothing worked.

Most people are calling this a Georgia hangover, but to me, the seeds of Kentucky’s regression go back to the bye week. Until that point, the Cats earned respect for winning the game in the trenches. If not for 169 yards from Benny Snell vs. Vandy and a miracle vs. Missouri, we would have come in to this game with a very different mindset. This year’s start was better than ever, but the pattern remains the same: regression. Mistakes. Disappointment.

That being said, Kentucky has two games left to finish the regular season 9-3, a mark most rolled their eyes at this summer; however, if the Cats keep playing like this, the path won’t be easy. Middle Tennessee State lost to Vandy (35-7) and Georgia (49-7) this season, but could easily pounce on a wounded animal. Louisville’s probably about to fire Bobby Petrino, but what’s saying the Cards won’t rally around an interim coach at home in the season finale? The Cats can still make this a season to remember with a sunny New Year’s Day bowl, but it has to start now.

As for tonight, with bowl eligibility in sight, Tennessee simply wanted it more, and for a Kentucky team that made its name on that same mentality earlier this year, that’s the biggest insult of all.


Kentucky’s offense is really, really bad

Kentucky’s defense carried Kentucky as far as it could. Going all the way back to the Texas A&M game when the defense scored a touchdown to force overtime, there has only been one side of the ball that plays winning football for Kentucky, but it can only do so much. At some point, the offense has to show up.

Remember the Mizzou game? The defense forced eight straight three-and-outs and the offense still didn’t score until the final seconds, and only with assists from some bad Missouri decisions and a pass interference call. The offense hasn’t truly existed since the first half of the South Carolina game. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.

Down in Tennessee on Saturday, the defense wasn’t at its best by any means, but it was the only side of the ball that made the trip. Kentucky’s offense was horrible once again, just as it has been every Saturday since that South Carolina game.

Poll the fan base and the blame is scattered everywhere. Eddie Gran gets a lot of it. Terry Wilson gets just as much. Some blame the offensive line. Others blame the receivers. I think it’s fair to blame everyone because the offense has been non-existent, and somewhat atrocious, lately. I bet if you looked at the numbers, there hasn’t been a 12th-ranked team in the history of college football with an offense as bad as Kentucky’s has been.

I’m not paid to figure it out so it’s not my place or my responsibility to turn it all around. But somebody better fix these problems or Kentucky will struggle against Middle Tennessee State and against the worst Louisville football team in the history of Louisville football… and let’s not even think what could go wrong in the bowl game. Hell, at this point we should be thankful Kentucky even gets to go to one of those.

I’ll leave you with a stat that’ll make you bang your head against the wall: Kentucky’s offense averages 10.8 points per game in its last five games. Throw in the second half of the South Carolina and it’s about 2.4 points per quarter.

The Cats are lucky to have Josh Allen and an unreal defense.


WATCH: Kentucky coaches and players talk with the media following Tennessee loss

WATCH: Kentucky coaches and players talk with the media following Tennessee loss

The media availability following Kentucky’s 24-7 loss to Tennessee was quite interesting, different from past blowouts and heartbreaking losses.

Mark Stoops took the overall blame as head coach, Eddie Gran took ownership for the lack of explosion on offense, and Benny Snell called out some of his teammates, among others.

Here are all of the postgame interviews with coaches and players.

First up, Mark Stoops:

Eddie Gran:

Matt House:

CJ Conrad:

Benny Snell:

Josh Allen:

Let’s hope that’s the last time we see a heartbroken locker room this season.


© Randy Sartin | USATSI

Kentucky’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, week.

© Randy Sartin | USATSI

If you turn back your clocks and calendars to last Saturday around 3:29 p.m., you’d be hard-pressed to find a more exciting time to be a member of the Big Blue Nation.

The Kentucky Wildcats were set to kick off against No. 6 Georgia for a spot in the SEC Championship game with an outside shot at the College Football Playoff. SEC Nation was in attendance, CBS chose the top-ten matchup for their primetime slot, and Kroger Field had been sold out for weeks.

Lexington was absolutely rocking, and even with the odds stacked against us, it felt like Kentucky football had finally earned the respect they deserved as one of the top teams in the SEC. For the first time in who knows how long, the Big Blue Nation had a reason to dream big. Really big.

After competing hard for about a quarter and a half, Kentucky crumbled under pressure and fell to the Bulldogs 34-17. SEC Championship and Playoff dreams were crushed in an instant.

Fast forward to Tuesday night on the hardwood, where the Kentucky Wildcat basketball team was set to tip off their season against No. 4 Duke and their highly-touted recruiting class in the Champions Classic. Fans still had the opportunity to turn their disappointment in the football team to excitement surrounding what was deemed one of the deepest and most talented groups of the John Calipari era. Some even said this team could flirt with 40-0, as the depth drew comparisons to the historic 2014-15 unit.

On the national stage, the Wildcats embarrassed themselves with missed shot after missed shot and little-to-no effort on the defensive end. They fell to the Blue Devils by a final score of 118-84, and even that ugly 34-point deficit doesn’t begin to describe how much of a beatdown it truly was. Keldon Johnson and Reid Travis had impressive scoring performances, but it was a travesty everywhere else.

Two massive chances on the big stage, both blown in ugly fashion.

Still, though, fans knew the Kentucky football team had an opportunity to finish the regular season 10-2. All they had to do was take care of business in Knoxville against Tennessee, and the rest would take care of itself. The big-time dreams were crushed, but there was still major optimism to be had.

On the basketball side of things, we felt a spark would be lit underneath the Wildcats and they’d come out full speed ahead against a potential NCAA Tournament team in Southern Illinois. I even apologized for some of Kentucky’s beatdowns dealt during the 2014-15 season in hopes of flipping some mojo back our way.

An open apology letter to Kansas, UCLA, and West Virginia from the Big Blue Nation

Instead, Kentucky came out sluggish on both ends of the floor yet again, going up just 31-28 at halftime. After the intermission, the Cats actually found themselves down by as many as seven points before they found a way to slowly climb back to finalize a 71-59 victory. Like the Duke game, we had impressive performances up top with Keldon Johnson and Immanuel Quickley, and horrendous efforts on the bottom with PJ Washington, Ashton Hagans, and Tyler Herro.

The talented team with incredible chemistry we saw in the Bahamas was nowhere to be found. Attention flipped back to football, at least temporarily.

And then here we are with… whatever that was against the (now) 5-5 Tennessee Volunteers.

The Wildcat offense went out there and (literally) dropped the ball at Neyland Stadium, falling to the Volunteers 24-7. Eddie Gran’s group managed just 262 total yards (77 rushing) and a putrid seven points against a below-average defense. They turned the ball over three times, punted seven times, and missed two field goals. They were allergic to putting themselves in position to score, let alone actually putting points on the board.

After weeks of putting on a show and proving that they are one of the best in college football, the Kentucky defense finally broke. The big plays they had avoided for so long finally came. The miscues piled up. Injuries finally came back to haunt the unit. The offense that was so dominant and efficient to start the year had slowly become one of the worst in the nation, and after making up for some of that lack of production week after week, the defense couldn’t hold on any longer.

Blame it on Mark Stoops’ inability to make adjustments, Eddie Gran’s stubbornness and predictability, Terry Wilson’s indecisiveness, the offensive line not even making the trip to Knoxville, the receivers being unable to do what they were signed here to do, or Benny Snell’s obvious step down over the last few weeks. Whatever. You can blame whoever you want, but the point remains that the overall offensive product is a major reason Kentucky’s potentially historic season will now be seen as a “what could have been” one. Make no mistake about it, an extreme makeover for the unit is necessary going forward.

Instead of potentially heading out west to play in the Fiesta Bowl or earning a spot in the Peach Bowl, the Cats have officially dropped down on the totem pole in the eyes of the bowl selection committees. And it happened because they couldn’t get anything going against mediocre Tennessee team.

Sadness. Disappointment. Frustration. You name the negative emotion, the Big Blue Nation felt it tonight.

Finishing the season 9-3 with a potential spot in the Citrus Bowl would still be a massive accomplishment, especially for a Kentucky football program that hasn’t won nine games in the regular season since 1977. Middle Tennessee is absolutely beatable and Louisville is a dumpster fire. Just show up, meet expectations, and they’re both likely victories.

On the other side, Kentucky basketball team still has the opportunity to put it all together and make a run for yet another Final Four under Coach Cal. It’s obvious the pieces are there for something special, the cohesion just isn’t. If there’s one coach you can trust to get a basketball program right by March, it’s John Calipari.

But goodness, what a nightmare week. And it’s okay to acknowledge that it has freaking sucked.

Football and basketball gods, whatever we did, please forgive us.


Benny Snell is prepared to “Eliminate” players who aren’t Hungry

Benny Snell has had enough.

After the loss to Tennessee, Snell has a message for his teammates: buy in or get out of the way.

“We gotta get those guys that are hungry.  We gotta have everybody sold on this team and on this mission.  This loss hurt,” Snell said.

“There’s not guys that have that dog mentality, that want it, that are hungry,…It was obvious that Tennessee wanted it more than Kentucky, so that’s why the outcomes was what it was.  We gotta eliminate the guys that don’t got that hunger.  If you don’t have it anymore, we don’t need you.

The junior running back has noticed some things recently around the football facility that led to Kentucky’s embarrassing loss in Knoxville.

“We’re not one.  We weren’t being one,” he said. “I can tell when guys are going through the motions, whether it’s game or practice.  I can spot that 100 percent.  That’s really all that it comes down to.  We all gotta be sold into the plan for this to work.  Hopefully we can do that.”

Benny has a simple solution.  “Put the guys in that are gonna play.  Put the guys in that aren’t gonna hurt the team that are going to make us better.”

Snell didn’t specifically point fingers, except for the finger he pointed at himself.  The running game has not looked the same since the Bye Week.  Since then Snell has only surpassed 100 yards in a game once, against Vanderbilt.  Opposing defenses have not changed their approach.  Something’s changed with Kentucky.

“They’ve been loading the box from now till the beginning of the year.  That really shouldn’t matter to me,” Snell said. “Me, how I think of my o-line, I don’t care if the best defense in the nation lines up and loads the box. If the linemen can do what they do with their guys and get to the second level, it’s unstoppable.

“I’ve proved that my sophomore year, my freshman and my junior (year): a thousand yards, three years, so it doesn’t matter.  It matters coming off the ball and being a more physical team up front, hands down.  The run game’s not here and there at times, but that’s a team thing.  You put that blame on me.  you put that blame on my line.  All we can do is go forward from that.  It all starts up front and ends with the back.  You can always have success if you have a good line, straight up.”

Something has not been right with the offense over the last month.  Benny Snell has set out to fix the problem.


Eddie Gran takes the blame, says UK needs more downfield shots

Eddie Gran is receiving a ton of backlash from the fan base, but give the man credit for owning up to his mistakes. After the game, he pretty much said he thought Kentucky would be able to run on Tennessee, but Tennessee showed up and shut that down.

This is on me. I felt like there was an edge and I really felt good going into this thing,” he said of his game plan. “They took it to us. Hats off to them.”

In his defense, Tennessee was ranked dead last in rush defense in the SEC. To think Kentucky would be able to run is not crazy by any means.

He then admitted, “I need to create more shots down the field. We gotta take some chunks. We gotta do it early and we gotta do it in some rhythm. I’m not creating enough of that for our offense.”

For all the criticism Gran receives, some of which is deserved, he always carries himself well and accepts the blame when things go wrong. We’re not too far removed from a former offensive coordinator who would’ve doubled down on his mistakes.


Mark Stoops Shoulders the Blame for not Preparing his team for Tennessee

After Kentucky was taken behind the woodshed at Tennessee, a somber Mark Stoops accepted responsibility for the Cats’ effort.

“It wasn’t good enough.  Obviously I didn’t have the team prepared to play.  It’s on me,” Stoops said.

“It really starts and ends with me.  I really didn’t have the team prepared.  Not a good enough job by myself.  I gotta accept that responsibility, get back to work and do some things differently to try to get a better result.”

Stoops didn’t see it coming.  Neither did C.J. Conrad.  Leading right up to kickoff, the senior tight end thought the Cats had the right energy to leave Neyland Stadium with a victory.

“I thought we were very prepared going into the game, but it showed on the field that we weren’t,” Conrad said.  “I thought we had a really good week of practice…even during warm-ups today I felt the energy we needed the energy to win on the road in the SEC.  I don’t know what happened.”

After the loss to Georgia, Stoops said they couldn’t let one loss turn into two.  To stop the bleeding on Senior Day against Middle Tennessee, something must change.

“There will be a different message, believe me,” Stoops said.  “That’s on me and I gotta get ’em ready to play. It didn’t happen this week.”


© Randy Sartin | USATSI

Second Quarter Disaster Dooms Kentucky in Knoxville

© Randy Sartin | USATSI

Searching for a win in Knoxville for the first time in 34 years, No. 11 Kentucky found nothing but bad football in the second quarter of a 24-7 loss to Tennessee.

Kentucky’s offense ran 15 plays in the second quarter.  They gained only one yard.

It’s tough to pinpoint exactly where the Cats went wrong because nothing went right.  Receivers dropped passes and offensive linemen missed blocks.  You can blame every single player and coach for the offensive ineptitude, and yet, the defense wasn’t much better.

Despite UK’s offensive struggles, Kentucky only trailed 3-0 with less than five minutes remaining in the first half.  Six plays and 81 yards later, Tennessee scored their first touchdown.  After a UK three and out, the Vols appeared to wave the white flag by running the football, yet somehow the defense still let this happen as time expired.

Kentucky tried to throw its way back into the game after a few Tennessee turnovers, but it was too little too late.

It’s been a tough week to be a Kentucky fan.  After all the painful losses, it’s hard to remember that this team could still finish 9-3 to play in a New Year’s bowl game.  The Cats must press the reset button quickly, or a season with so much potential could be soured by a catastrophic conclusion.


At The Half: Tennessee 17, Kentucky 0

At The Half: Tennessee 17, Kentucky 0

This is embarrassing.


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Views from the Cat Walk at Tennessee

Views from the Cat Walk at Tennessee

Kentucky fans flocked to Neyland Stadium to welcome the Wildcats to Knoxville.  Jack Pilgrim and I were on the scenes to capture the best moments from the cramped quarters beneath Neyland.

 


Kentucky-Tennessee: Numbers You Need to Know

Kentucky-Tennessee: Numbers You Need to Know

1 — Offensive touchdowns Tennessee scored against Charlotte.  The Vols only rushed for 20 yards last week.

2 — Interceptions thrown by Jarrett Guarantano by this season.  Tua is the only SEC starting quarterback with fewer interceptions.

3 — Points Kentucky beat Tennessee by last year at Kroger Field after Stephen Johnson’s late diving touchdown was followed by an incredible two-point play.

4 — Kentucky could become just the fourth team since 1987 to win in Knoxville and Gainesville in the same season.

14Where Tennessee ranks in many SEC offensive categories.

41 — Each team converts 41 percent of their third downs.

49.3 — Penalties yards a game by Tennessee, the second-fewest in the SEC. UK is second in the SEC (18th nationally) in penalty yards committed by opponents.

109 — Tennessee’s national sack rate ranking.  That means the Vols are terrible at protecting Guarantano.  It also means that Josh Allen, the SEC’s leader in quarterback pressures, is going to have a field day.


Paul Finebaum picks Tennessee to Beat Kentucky

Paul Finebaum picks Tennessee to Beat Kentucky

Paul Finebaum has put the Cats on upset alert against the Vols. In fact, he outright picked Tennesee to pick Kentucky.

Kentucky hasn’t won in Neyland Stadium since 1984, which may be a reason why Finebaum picked the 4-5 Volunteers to upset Kentucky in Knoxville. Finebaum believes, Kentucky will suffer from the hangover effect from last week.

“Kentucky, for those of you who like to go back in history, hasn’t won in Neyland Stadium since 1984,” Finebaum said this morning on SportsCenter. “While they have the better team and they’ve had the better season, Tennessee has proven it can do some things. It’s going to be a tough game for Tennessee to win, but I think Kentucky may still be hung over after that beatdown last week in Lexington.” This is the second straight week Finebaum has picked against the 7-2 Cats.

Tim Tebow and Marcus Spears picked Kentucky to pick up their first win in Knoxville in 34 years.

College Gameday excluded any mention of Kentucky this week.