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.