What could have gone wrong did go wrong for Kentucky in Starkville. Saturday’s performance surprisingly came after a bye week which meant an extra week of preparation. The Cats were dominated in all three phases. Kentucky played its poorest game of the season when a victory could have clinched bowl eligibility and made a statement of belonging in the SEC East. Instead, it must now claw its way back after getting beaten up by Mississippi State 45-7.
It’s not that the Cats lost on the road. Kentucky was defeated by a good football team that was favored by nearly two touchdowns. Prior to the game I didn’t understand the point spread. Afterwards, I got it. Miss State may end up being the second or third best team in the West. It’s the manner in which UK was smacked around along both lines of scrimmage that signaled alarms. On October 21st 2017, the Bulldogs were just plain faster, stronger, smarter, more physical, better coached, and well; you get the picture.
59 plays, 260-yards, 14 first downs produced just 7 points. It also gave up 7 tackles for loss and 3 quarterback sacks. Time of possession: Miss St 34:49, Kentucky 25:11.
UK was whipped up front, dropped passes, had very little running back generated rushing attack, and threw two picks. Mississippi State should be credited for an accurate game plan, physical demeanor, and timely execution. But in my opinion, Saturday was more telling about UK’s deficits. The Cats beat this team 40-38 a year ago and defeated its defensive coordinator in last year’s Governor’s Cup. Miss State was just plain meaner and exhibited a much higher desire to win this time around. Hat tip to Dan Mullen and that cow bell toting home crowd atmosphere.
The Wildcats cannot expect to win another game this season if it doesn’t somehow, some way establish a run game. It’s not done so on a consistent basis through seven games. Perplexing given 2016 results and with a running back like Benny Snell in the backfield. Quarterback Stephen Johnson’s 54-yards led the team. The offensive line rotated personnel but has yet to establish a solidified foundation to provide satisfactory running lanes or adequately protect the quarterback. This trend was blatantly obvious on Saturday against a physical, disruptive front seven. Opposing defenses will continue to be highly talented throughout the rest of the season. Things will not get easier. UK continued to struggle on first down which led to several 3rd and unmanageable situations (6/14-42.85%). That’s not exactly a recipe for victory in the Southeastern Conference or any college football league for that matter.
Totally whipped up front. Miss State ran 75 plays for 441-yards, 25 first downs, and 45 points. The Wildcats didn’t tackle, cover receivers, maintain gap integrity, or counter physical play with a great deal of fight. Mississippi State ran for 282-yards off 48 carries. The vast majority of these yards came after initial contact which was as distressing as the loss itself. Credit MSU’s state of mind for fighting through arm tackles and being mentally and physically tougher for sixty minutes.
Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald completed 54% of his passes prior to Saturday. Against Kentucky, the junior signal caller completed 70% of his throws for 155-yards with a group of receivers that were not known for their pass catching prowess. Again, credit Miss State. This is majorly concerning considering that UK has to face teams with elite throwing quarterbacks and pass catchers like Ole Miss, Louisville, and Georgia.
As badly as the Cats were beaten up on the line of scrimmage, special teams really didn’t factor.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
The back half of the schedule is difficult. Been saying that since Media Days. How Kentucky bounces back from Saturday’s embarrassing performance against a wobbly Tennessee team will define the 2017 season. It’s a simple as that. Tennessee played Alabama close (in context) for a half. The Tide led the Vols 21-0 after two quarters.
Listen, every team has an off day. But, Miss State’s complete line of scrimmage domination coupled with Kentucky’s continuing problems in both phases of the run game present a new perspective for Cat’s final five games. UT RB John Kelly will test the UK run defense. Kelly is one of the conference’s leaders in yards after contact and one of the best overall running backs the Cats will go against. There are also some very talented defenders along the Volunteer front seven that will provide similar challenges that were present against MSU. Plus, no outcomes can be taken for granted after this Miss State performance. Plus, the UK-UT game was once considered a rivalry. The two teams used to play for a trophy. Heated emotional games can lead to strange results. Tennessee historically is at its best against Kentucky. Or so it seems.
There were very few positives that can be construed from the 45-7 humiliation. The bigger and more telling question is what’s the ceiling for this football team? There are no sure wins in the back half of the schedule. Never has been.
An embarrassing loss can be answered in two ways. First, give up or simply throw in the towel. Second; learn from prior mistakes, circle the wagons, and become better from the experience. While future opposing teams may not have favorable win/loss records, there are still several competent individual players that are talented enough to take over a ballgame much like Nick Fitzgerald did in Starkville.
Kentucky cannot afford to lose to Mississippi State twice. ClichÃ© and coach speak but applicable. Media and fans alike will decipher, complain about, and debate Saturday’s loss for at least a week. Mark Stoops and team will not be afforded that same luxury. Kentucky has no other choice than to go back to work and move on to Tennessee. For many and varying reasons, Saturday’s pending matchup is pivotal for both teams. Seven decisive days await the Kentucky Wildcats and the Tennessee Volunteers. Somebody’s season is about to change…….