For both head coach Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, Kentucky’s matchup against Texas A&M was the first opportunity for each of them against their former boss, Jimbo Fisher.
At Florida State, Stoops served as Fisher’s defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach from 2010-2012, while Gran was the team’s associate head coach, running backs coach and special teams coordinator during that same time. Between the two of them, Stoops and Gran helped lead the Seminoles to their first ACC Championship since 2005, their first 11-win season since 2000, an Orange Bowl appearance in 2012, and a national title in their final year on staff in 2013.
Now, the student has become the teacher, as Stoops took over the Kentucky program and Gran is the leader of the Wildcat offense. With Fisher moving from Tallahassee to College Station, and Kentucky having Texas A&M on the schedule this season, you better believe they had this game circled on the schedule this season.
But when the moment in the spotlight came on Saturday night, Fisher proved he was still the maestro, while Stoops and Gran showed they still have some work to do.
The Kentucky coaches, Gran in particular, overplayed their hand and was dealt a handful of aces.
Kentucky’s offense gained just 178 total yards on just 50 plays, an atrocious average of 3.6 yards per play. Benny Snell rushed only 13 times for a season-low 60 yards with zero touchdowns. Terry Wilson was incredibly frustrating under center, taking unnecessary sacks, taking far too long on reads, and missing open targets. The offensive line committed costly mistakes time and time again, giving up pressure, holding, jumping early, and one crucial unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
The only plays the unit ran in Texas A&M’s territory came in overtime, which is mind-boggling to me. Following Lynn Bowden’s 54-yard touchdown score, UK managed just 41 total yards on nine possessions to end the game. The offense managed just eight first downs the entire night. Eight.
It was a complete system failure, and as talented as the Aggies are defensively, a big part of it had to do with the Cats just flat-out choking in a hostile Kyle Field environment.
Gran got away from Kentucky’s bread and butter: beating teams at the line of scrimmage, dominating on the ground, and grinding it out for the victory. Instead, he tried to outsmart Fisher’s defense by going through the air and avoiding what has worked for the offense in the past. The biggest questionmark came on a crucial 3rd-and-2 in overtime when the obvious answer was to give Benny Snell the football to convert the first down. He’s done it time and time again over the years at Kentucky in both no-stress and clutch situations.
“It looked so good in practice,” Gran said. “It’s been successful. My thought was, ‘it’s going to be wide open because everybody in the stadium is thinking Benny is going to get the football.’ Bad decision. As you look back at it, that’s not a good decision.”
It was like the Seattle Seahawks not giving Marshawn Lynch the ball on the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX against the New England Patriots. Pete Carroll tried to outsmart Bill Belichick, assuming he was going to contain Lynch in the middle and leave the crossing route open on the outside. He didn’t trust his team’s biggest strength and force his opponent to come up with a stop. Instead of giving his most dominant player the ball in a situation he almost always thrives in, he tried to overthink the play and outsmart the opposition. He failed.
You give Benny Snell the ball in that situation, and he’s going to convert 95 times out of 100. And if he (somehow) doesn’t, you’re in line to kick a 34-yard field goal, a distance Miles Butler has been comfortable with all year long. You’re in line to put points on the board either way.
Instead, Terry Wilson took a sack to push the kick back eight yards, where Butler came up just inches short. They got cute after a timeout, went away from their strengths, and it resulted in a loss.
“Obviously in hindsight we would’ve handed that thing off and at worse you gotta kick the field goal,” he said.
To put it simply, they overthought the situation from start to finish and came up empty-handed. It was the first time all season I felt Gran called a poor game offensively, and I questioned Stoops for not stepping in when Snell wasn’t put in position to make plays. They were both outcoached by their former boss on the big stage.
I was baffled and angry after the game, just like every other member of the Big Blue Nation. I was frustrated, counting every single missed opportunity and the “what-ifs.” But after an hour or so, reality set in that we still have half a football season to look forward to, and it should be a special one.
The fact of the matter is, sitting at 5-1 and 3-1 in the SEC at the halfway point is better than any of us anticipated. They’re still right in the heat of things at No. 2 in the SEC East with a favorable schedule coming up.
You went on the road to take on Texas A&M in one of the most hostile environments in America as a 6.5-point underdog. The offense looked about as bad as you can get, yet somehow, Kentucky was still in position to win in both regulation and overtime.
I’m no fan of moral victories, but this was about as close to one as you can get.
You learn from your mistakes and fix them during the bye week, come back the next two weeks and take care of business aginst Vanderbilt (3-3) and Missouri (3-2), and then play Georgia for the SEC East on November 3.
We’re at the point under Mark Stoops where we expect to win every game and are pissed off when losses come. It’s not the same sadness and self-pity we felt in the past, which is wild to think about itself.
Expectations are high, and they deserve to be. That was a game Kentucky could have, and should have, won. But luckily for us, just about every team in college football slips up at least once along the way, many of which still finish with special seasons. Sitting at No. 18 in the latest AP Poll with a favorable schedule ahead, the Cats are still absolutely in that boat.
Accept the mistakes, learn from them, and move on. There is still a whole lot of football to be played.
And I still like my team.