To quote Jim Nantz, “Hello friends.”
If you spent any time on KSR on Monday night, my new boss Matt Jones was nice enough to introduce me to you — but for those of you who aren’t familiar, my name is Aaron Torres and the new kid on the KSR writing block. As Matt mentioned, I’m pleased to join what is already a loaded group of talented writers and podcasters, meaning that really I’m just trying to be the Dominique Hawkins of this group. I know I’m not a star (even if I do have a 40+-inch vertical leap) but am happy to come off the bench a few times a week and fill an important role for my new team.
As Matt mentioned in his post, you probably best know me for my book on Kentucky hoops, “One and Fun” about the 2010 team (still available on Amazon by the way) and I also did quite a bit of writing on Kentucky hoops and football during my time at Fox Sports. However, what many of you may not know is that I actually first came on Matt’s radar way back in 2009, during that first year of the John Calipari era at Kentucky, when I attended a UK-UConn game played that season at Madison Square Garden. The following day I wrote about the experience with a special emphasis on my amazement with the Kentucky fan-base and the passion for which they followed their team (a HUGE thanks to @HillbillyinBC on Twitter for finding a link to the old article). And since then that’s who I’ve basically been known as in KSR circles: “that outside dude who knows a lot of stuff about Kentucky basketball.”
And as Matt mentioned, that is exactly what my role will be with KSR. I’m not a lifelong fan like so many of the staff and fans reading. I’m not here to provide the in-depth experience of someone who has followed UK my whole life, but instead, give an outsider’s perspective on what is relevant in the UK community. On any given day it could be a feature or opinion piece, on football, basketball, recruiting, the NBA Draft, or even why Coach K gets away with stuff no other coach in America would (trust me, Kentucky fans aren’t the only ones who feel that way).
All that brings us to my first assignment for KSR: After years of covering college football on a national level for Fox Sports — focusing on the Alabama’s and Ohio State’s of the world — Matt asked me to check out UK’s game against Southern Miss and share some thoughts.
Again, to be clear — even though I followed the team by reading KSR and other outlets — I am by no means an expert and don’t claim to be. But below are 10 thoughts on that 24-17 victory over Southern Miss. Hopefully you enjoy, but if you don’t, feel free to be honest with me and send feedback. The best place to get me is [email protected].
Here goes nothing…
The D-Line was awesome Saturday
I’ll be honest: Entering my first deep dive into Kentucky football, the only thing I really knew about the d-line was that when Matt Elam committed over Alabama and other college football powers, it was a huge deal. Of course if I’m being honest, I also didn’t realize that commitment already came four years ago and that Elam is now a senior. Where does the time go?
Regardless, my biggest impression from Saturday was that the d-line was probably the best overall unit for Kentucky on the field. Southern Miss never got into a groove running the ball, and as has been widely written already, the group as a whole did an awesome job limiting Ito Smith to just 37 yards rushing (after he tallied over 1,400 last year). In essence, it seemed like virtually all of Southern Miss’ rushing yards came from quarterback carries and those were few and far between.
Also, I know that Josh Paschal isn’t technically a defensive lineman, but how about that hit that he laid at the line of scrimmage on the final possession of the game? Talk about a way to make your presence felt, huh?
The pass defense wasn’t as bad as the stats say:
I consider my KSR column space to be a trust tree, so again, I’m just going to be honest for a second: When Kentucky actually played Saturday I was actually flipping through a million different games and didn’t give the time it properly deserved. Therefore you can imagine my fear when I saw at the end of the game that they’d given up 309 yards passing. The good news though is that when I went back and re-watched the game on DVR Sunday, my biggest takeaway was this: The defensive backfield wasn’t nearly as bad as the stats might indicate.
Sure a 309-yard passing day isn’t ideal from the opposing team’s quarterbacks, but there are a few things to consider here. One, Southern Miss fell down early, meaning they had no choice but to pass the ball more than they would have liked to, finishing with 40 attempts overall. Two, there were two plays (unfortunately, both went for touchdown scores) that resulted in nearly a quarter of Southern Miss’ passing yards (68).Therefore, over the other 38 passes, UK held their opponent to just 241 yards, or about six yards per pass attempt. Not great, but again, not as terrible as the stats would indicate.
Now, does the defensive backfield need work? Of course, but every team — even the Alabama’s and Michigan’s of the world — have stuff to work on after Week 1.
Speaking of which…
UK’s got to improve on penalties
Obviously every football fan knows that penalties can be costly, but eight penalties are just entirely too many (that ranks in the bottom half of FBS football, and several teams of the teams who’ve committed more penalties than UK have already played two games this season) and so too is the 60 free yards the Wildcats gave up. What was especially concerning was that a few of those penalties were simply mental mistakes, like the two false start penalties UK had in its final two full possessions.
Granted, those penalties didn’t end up costing Kentucky against Southern Miss. But as they get set to play tougher competition (starting with South Carolina in two weeks), that’s something that needs to be tightened up.
I’m digging the special teams
Look, I know that talking about special teams is about as exciting as Jim Boeheim breaking down the intricacies of his 2-3 zone, but the simple truth is that the great teams are always great in special teams. Urban Meyer used to coach special teams when he was winning national titles at Florida and heck, Alabama basically beat Florida State almost exclusively because of their special teams.
Therefore, it’s a solid step in the right direction for a team trying to eclipse their seven-win total from a season ago that they took care of the basics in special teams so effortlessly. For those keeping score at home, Austin MacGinnis nailed his only field goal attempt and Sihiem King (definitely checked that spelling a few times) averaged 34 yards a return. Even better, the Wildcats essentially allowed no return yardage in the punt game, with Southern Miss’ only big gain negated by a penalty.
Sometimes playing winning football is as simple as executing the little things. When it came to special teams UK did exactly that.
I wasn’t a fan of the play-calling late
Look, I’ll never claim to be an offensive genius (even if my boyish looks do remind some of a young Kliff Kingsbury) but I just wasn’t a fan of the play-calling late. I know that Mark Stoops and his coaching staff probably just wanted to get out of town with a win — which to the Wildcats’ credit, they did — but I just felt like there was a bit to be desired late. Specifically, was there really a need to go to the “Wildcat” offense that much late (for those who don’t know, the “Wildcat” is an offense where the running back — in this case Benny Snell — takes direct snaps from the center, with no quarterback in the backfield).
Again, I understand the goal is to get yards, churn out clock and get the win, and I also understand that having a quarterback in the backfield ups the possibility of a turnover. But at the same time, the Wildcat also does something else — makes the offense totally predictable. It eliminates any threat of a pass and allows the defense to load up the box for the run. It seems especially pointless for a team like Kentucky to run it, considering they have a dual-threat quarterback who can actually beat you with his feet. I’m not saying Stephen Johnson was great through the air on Saturday, but having him in the game, the defense had to at least respect the pass, while also fearing a run option from both the quarterback and running back. Instead, Southern Miss loaded the box and basically eliminated any threat of offense from Kentucky on the final few possessions, putting that much more burden on the defense.
Now in the end, maybe this was all part of Stoops’ master-plan, and ultimately he was happy to escape with a win without putting anything on tape. But if I had one big “gripe” with what I saw Saturday, this was probably it.
Now let’s get to some of the more light-hearted stuff.
I love the fact that Southern Miss has an apparel deal with Russell Athletic
It’s now time to take a quick break from my hard-hitting Kentucky football analysis (again, send all hate mail to [email protected]) to mention my favorite thing about Southern Miss football: Did anyone notice that they have an apparel deal with Russell Athletic?
Seriously I love that fact that in the high-stakes world of college athletics, where companies like Nike and Under Armour pay schools like Kentucky and Notre Dame hundreds of millions of dollars to wear their gear, Southern Miss is sponsored by a brand that you can buy in bulk at Wal-Mart. This also leads me to my biggest question about Southern Miss: Who else was bidding for their contract? Sketchers? Fila? And 1?
I’d be lying if I said I’ll be watching much Southern Miss football going forward. But they’ll always have a special place in my heart because of those adorable Russell Athletic uniforms.
My other USM takeaway: Jay Hopson is one scary man
Again, “watching Southern Miss” football won’t be near the top of my priority list going forward on college football Saturday’s, but if one thing stands out about the Eagles on the field it’s this: Their coach Jay Hopson is one scary man. Every time they cut to him on the sideline you could just see that underneath his Russell Athletic polo was a terrifying man with enough dad strength to kill small animals with bare hands and rip down torn tree branches after a bad storm.
At the very least, Hopson struck me as the kind of guy who definitely goes out of his way to show all his daughter’s new boyfriends his personal gun collection, “you know, just because.”
Point being, win or lose, Hopson is not a man you want to mess with.
And on that note, it’s probably time to get back to talking UK football.
Kentucky’s defense was the best thing that a “D” can be — opportunistic
There are a lot of nice things you can say about a defense, that they’re smart, hard-hitting, you name it, but there is probably no greater compliment than calling them “opportunistic.” That they not only force the other team into mistakes, but that they then take advantage of them.
Well, if there was one way to describe Kentucky’s defense Saturday, “opportunistic” was certainly it. With the offense struggling the defense made plays, forcing three turnovers, including two absolutely crucial ones late. The first — a forced fumble — led to a recovery and touchdown by Denzil Ware, in what turned out to be the deciding touchdown of the game. The second was another forced fumble in the final few minutes, when Southern Miss was down by just a touchdown late and was driving late. Kentucky didn’t score off that particular turnover, but it stopped Southern Miss right in their tracks and allowed the Wildcats to milk a few more minutes off the clock.
To win a game, you’ve got to do all the little stuff. And the Wildcats certainly did that Saturday.
Speaking of which…
UK did in fact win the game
It seems like such a dumb, obvious takeaway from Saturday, but above all it’s important to remember one thing: Kentucky did in fact win the game. It wasn’t always pretty, but in a true road contest, against a team which won seven games last year, and on a playing surface that —to my understanding — could best be described as “hotter than the surface of the sun” that’s no small feat. Just ask Kevin Sumlin or Jim McElwain if they’d trade their results with Mark Stoops’ right now.
What’s even more is that this wasn’t just a cakewalk win (although I’m sure for all the UK fans reading that would have been nice) but one where they had to make plays down the stretch to make it happen. Southern Miss had the ball three times in the final few minutes trailing by just a touchdown, and was one big play away from tying up the game. Instead, the Wildcats forced a fumble, forced a punt and then forced a four-and-out.
This was a win UK had to “earn.” And that’s exactly what they did.
Finally, I can see why there’s optimism about this team
Now that I’m a couple thousand words into my life as someone who follows UK football, I feel ready to make a big, bold proclamation: I see why there was so much excitement about the team coming into the season.
Sure there are things to work on, but when you look at this team there is plenty to like as well; the d-line, the playmaking ability of the linebackers, Benny Snell Jr.
Also — and maybe I’m crazy — but after watching Week 1, there isn’t a single team on the schedule that should absolutely terrify UK fans. Maybe Georgia, but they could be starting a true freshman at quarterback all season long. Tennessee, Louisville and South Carolina picked up wins that easily could have been losses, Missouri’s defense is softer than the few remaining hairs atop Kevin Stallings’ head and Florida was so lifeless someone better poke McElwain with a stick to make sure he’s still alive. Kentucky obviously won’t be favored against Florida, but they’re not the Gators of the mid-90’s either.
Therefore, while I’m not going to make any grandiose predictions off one game (I’ll leave that to the experts) what I will say is that it could be a very fun year for UK football. And for its fans.