1. They Aren’t Who We Thought They Were
“AND WE LET EM OFF THE HOOK!”
Mark Stoops opened game week by speaking of unknowns surrounding the football team. With 17 starters returning, most people, including myself, ignored this warning. That’s why he’s paid a bunch of money to coach football, folks.
Many expected to see a team that could run the football behind a dominating offensive line, regardless of circumstance, but struggled to stop the opponent from running the ball. The exact opposite was true on Saturday.
A year after Ito Smith torched the Kentucky defense, the Cats held Smith to just 37 rushing yards (2.3 yards per carry) largely in part to exceptional play on the defensive line that rotated eight players into three positions. Three players I doubted would significantly contribute — Matt Elam, Kengera Daniel and Calvin Taylor Jr. — combined for ten tackles, one for loss. When the defensive linemen didn’t make plays, they created stalemates at the line of scrimmage and allowed linebackers to stop Smith before he got started.
On the other side of the ball, UK’s running game that physically dominated opponents a year ago failed to find their flow. In the trenches, the absence of Cole Mosier and Jon Toth was felt. Snaps went awry, players missed assignments and injuries forced Kentucky to rotate players across the line, creating combinations that could never get it all together.
When the offensive line began figuring things out, the running backs failed to remain patient enough to hit the holes. Finally able to take significant snaps after he was limited by the coaching staff throughout the preseason, Benny Snell was too anxious in the backfield. Snell was able to bust a few runs to near the first down marker, but most of the time he could only fall forward for two or three yards. He finished the game with 67 yards, but it took 20 carries to get there.
The resulting rush game we saw on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball was on the complete opposite spectrum of what we expected. It was disheartening for some at the time, but at the end of the day fans should be encouraged — it’s much easier to fix running game woes on offense than it is on defense.
2. A Terrifying Third Down Package
The defensive linemen in the 3/4 never get the credit they deserve because their jobs are not sexy. They fill the lanes for others to make plays. They still managed to make a few plays in the run game, but their value in the passing game cannot be understated. They filled the middle rush lanes to free up the edges. When the edges were free, the rained down hell upon the Southern Miss quarterback.
Denzil Ware was free to make enough plays to be the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week. Ware and Josh Allen combined for 8 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries and a touchdown. The third piece of the puzzle on the edge has one of the most terrifying third down packages in the SEC.
Josh Paschal put his hand in the dirt on third down to join Ware and Allen in the backfield. The true freshman’s only tackle was a big one.
This running back deserves to fight his offensive line, his quarterback, his coordinator. Everyone pic.twitter.com/Um6zVOp4k1
— Barstool Sports (@barstooltweetss) September 2, 2017
The addition of Paschal will make Kentucky exponentially better in obvious passing situations. If they aren’t sacking the quarterback, they will still disrupt him enough to make the defensive back’s jobs much easier.
3. Panton Can Punt
Kentucky’s defense deserves a ton of credit for carrying the team to a victory in Hattiesburg. Matt Panton deserves just as much credit.
If you’re going to win a game with defense, the defense must be put in situations to succeed. Even when the offense couldn’t sustain long drives, they were still able to flip the field, thanks to Panton.
Panton punted the ball nine times. Five of those were downed inside the Southern Miss 20, and two of those were inside the two yard-line. He averaged 42 yards per punt and his longest went 50 yards.
Punters rarely receive recognition, until you’ve experienced life without one who can consistently put the defense in a position to succeed. Hopefully this is not the only game this season where Panton’s efforts are appreciated by the Big Blue Nation.
4. The Wrong End on 50/50 Homerun Balls
Southern Miss stayed in the game with big plays. Half of their offensive production (180 of 364 yards) came on six plays. Other than one missed assignment in the secondary, the Cats had a chance to make a play on the ball. Instead, Southern Miss won the battle for 50/50 balls.
“There were some pass plays that we have to do a better job, and we will,” Mark Stoops said after the game. “There were some balls that were hung up there that we just gotta work on and get better at playing the football. We’ll come down with our share.”
Conversely, the offense didn’t come down with many big homeruns either, excluding C.J. Conrad’s 59-yard completion. After spending an offseason fighting for balls against familiar foes, they struggled against a different opponent. Hopefully experience will begin to turn the tide on jump balls toward Kentucky in the future.
5. Road Fans are My Favorite
It’s easy to criticize the team during the game. It’s almost impossible to do after witnessing a victory firsthand on another team’s field.
It took me three years of covering Kentucky football before I was able to witness a road victory. Now the Cats have won three out of their last four on the road.
There’s a certain indescribable euphoria that consumes fans who get to celebrate a win in another team’s stadium. After suffering through taunting from opposing fans after a loss, they get to see thousands of people humbled immediately. The suffering leads to a greater appreciation after each victory, an appreciation that never gets old.
One fan is no better than the other, but nothing is more fun than celebrating with fans in enemy territory.