I find no joy in writing this post. To be completely up front and honest, this article crosses the objective journalistic line and leans toward the former player in me. Wearing many hats is tiring. I’m tired. I’m sick. No, I’m mad. Kentucky was the better team on Saturday but did not win the football game. Inexcusably, two uncovered Gator receivers were gifted a pair of scores. Kentucky also penalized and bad snapped itself into a corner. It left points and a win on the field. When UK forced the first turnover of the night it didn’t go for the knockout punch but instead went away from the play action pass which resulted in a three and out. Multiple trips to the Gator 40-yard line didn’t produce points. Drive and potentially game ending tackles were missed. Two Stephen Johnson red-zone sacks pushed Austin MacGinnis’s first failed attempt to 48-yards instead of a chip shot. With all that and much more; UK was an unscrupulous holding call on Nick Haynes away from ending the streak. Florida won in the Swamp on a no-call clock play and in Lexington on a holding call that should have never been called in that situation. Hint, no reality; there’s a callable holding penalty on every single football play in every single game. Football happens. I guess. Credit Florida for the win. But, the game should have never been in question.
Yet, there were signs that support the claim that UK was the better football team which makes this loss take on a feel of cruelty more than the embarrassment of a 65-0 pasting. Again, this team played their guts out. A Stephen Johnson led third quarter drive that resulted in a 21-14 lead was textbook. Kentucky is at its best when utilizing its top player which happens to be the quarterback. Johnson’s influence and second half role decreased until the final drive of the game.
Saturday produced a one-point loss that could have very easily been a two score victory. The last coach to beat Florida was Jerry Claiborne and he commonly referred that train of thought as “the ole ‘iffin’ game.” Celebrations could still have been going on in Lexington but the Cats failed to Finish and lost to Florida for the 31st consecutive time.
During the week players and coaches spoke matter-of-fact about Saturday’s contest being the next game on the schedule and hinting that the stage would not be too big. It turned out to be overwhelming at times for the normally steady Cats. It wavered when it needed to maintain its course. A packed to capacity crowd did its part. The BBN deserved the W. I’m sorry. So did current and former players. I’m sorry again. The crowd was deserving of a lifetime victory against an opponent that was a mere logo resemblance of the Top 5 squads that the home-standing BBN grew accustom to seeing every other year.
10 points separated the Cats and Gators with 15:00 remaining in regulation. The scoreboard read Kentucky 24, Florida 14. The Gators scored two touchdowns in the final period, the Wildcats were limited to just three possessions and netted a field goal. Ball game. We could go into detail of the how; but what’s the point with emotions raw and the sting of defeat resonating throughout every fiber of our existence? We’ll get to that after I gather the courage to watch the game tape on Sunday night.
Execution, attention to detail, penalties, coaching culpabilities, and other lapses were obvious; especially at the game’s most critical moments. But so were effort, grit, determination, and fight within a Kentucky team that fought for sixty minutes. Can’t tell you how proud that I am of their effort and “want to.” The talent gap between the two programs is now a stalemate. But, at the end of the night the scoreboard still read Florida 28, Kentucky 27.
Even though it was assisted with a pair of Christmas gift touchdowns; Florida showed the resolve and perseverance of a team that happens to be the back-to-back SEC East Champions. Jim McElwain must be credited. However, if this UF wins the East in 2017 the division needs to fold and permanently concede superiority to its western counterparts.
Mark Stoops took responsibility for the aforementioned defensive errors that led to two inconceivable and uncontested UF touchdowns. He will be questioned again on Monday at his weekly press conference and I’m certain many times after that. I saw him after the game. The weight of the loss was uncomfortably visible.
Saturday wasn’t the first time that a Kentucky coach was scrutinized for specific situations that impacted a game’s outcome. Jerry Claiborne got raked over the coals in 1987 for running Mark Higgs on four consecutive unsuccessful plays at the goal line in a home loss to Tennessee. That was hard to see. Rich Brooks was grilled in 2009 when Randall Cobb wasn’t utilized in the red-zone against the Volunteers. Again, not fun to watch as the disappointment in Brooks’ eyes was disconcerting. Remember the Bluegrass Miracle? The Cats were up 30-27 over LSU and in prevent defense when a Tiger receiver got deeper than the deepest? What did the four coaches have in common? They took ownership of their missteps. I’m not defending Saturday’s mishaps. Just providing historical perspective.
“They played unbelievably hard tonight — and played winning football. And I really appreciate them and the way they put themselves in a position all week to win the football game. And there’s quite a few plays in games and you never know which ones are going to decide the football game. And there’s probably one of 12 plays in there that changed the game. And it’s very disappointing that we didn’t come up with those plays. The breakdown in communication defensively on the two plays are really a sore spot because they stick out and it takes away from the great passion and energy that the team, that our team played with. We played winning football. We have to get those things fixed and I accept responsibility for those and we’ll get those plays fixed and do a better job. So, again, I thank the fans. The atmosphere was phenomenal. Greatly appreciate their support and energy, and I know our players did as well.”
So, what’s next?
This answer will not be popular, and that’s ok. But there’s nothing else to say or do than for the Cats to pick themselves up off the mat and prepare for Eastern Michigan. What’s the other option? Quit? Turn in equipment and fold the program? Your emotional answer may be yes and trust me; I feel your pain. For goodness sakes, my freshman class started this God forsaken streak of reptile ineptitude. Saturday was personal.
But quitting or folding shop is not a viable or realistic option. Disappointed? Absolutely. But, how many said a split against Carolina and Florida would be a precursor for a successful first half of the season? Florida can’t beat Kentucky on two consecutive Saturdays. Meaning; Saturday’s heart break loss can’t lead into an upset defeat to EMU. Mark Stoops and his Wildcats have still gone 10-5 over its last fifteen games. It may not feel like it at the time you read this post but there have been undeniable improvements within the Kentucky Football program. That’s no comfort; again I understand. But, there’s a great deal of football left in a twelve game season. But dog-gone-it Saturday’s loss stings. A lot.
Truth is that the healing process for the players will start once the Eastern Michigan game plan is unveiled. Young folks are far more resilient than weathered fans (like me) that have witnessed far too many near misses. Heck, the mood I’m in I’d go as far as publically apologizing for the 1989 and 90 losses which happened under my watch and several decades ago. I’m sorry.
Fans were crushed. But none hurt as badly as the players that wore the chrome helmets on Saturday. Sunday will be miserable for players and coaches alike. It’s now nearing 5:30am on Sunday morning and I remain despondent. Monday meetings will be nauseating. Regardless, forward motion must take place and the true character of this team will be on display when it takes the field next Saturday against Eastern Michigan.
I think it’s established that you and I are not happy with the loss but let’s read from those that actually played in the game. These Cats were hurting for each other. They played their guts out. They were also brokenhearted for not delivering a win they so badly wanted for the fans. Yes, that matters. A lot. Regardless of time or history, players universally seek fan approval. They urgently wanted to see the BBN celebrate, smile, and leave Kroger Field with a sense of satisfaction. Disappointment and shock were obvious 300-pound weights on the shoulders of all involved with the program in the postgame locker room. Charles Walker best summed up the only forward path this team can take.
Charles Walker on how long it will take to get over something like this:
“With football you have to have a quick memory. Just like in a game, you drop a ball, they are going to come right back to you and you have to catch it. It’s different every time. We’ll see. Definitely a tough loss. We’ll use this as motivation. Watch the film, get better, get corrected, forget about it and play the next game.”
Nick Haynes on penalty at the end of the game:
“I was surprised. I didn’t think it was a hold but I guess he thought something else. That’s all I can say about that really.”
Haynes on who stepped up in locker room after game:
“It was really all of us. That was a hard one to lose. But we have a bunch of seniors and leaders here and we’ll be ready to go as quick as tomorrow. We’re a hungry team and we’ll be back better than ever.”
Stephen Johnson on if he could tell from the start that Kentucky was physical enough to play with Florida:
“Absolutely. Everything we had game planned was going the right way. We had a few mistakes, especially on my part. A few throws I shouldn’t have made. But we just have to get all of that fixed on Monday.”
Eli Brown on how frustrating it was to leave guys open on two different plays:
“It’s communication. You get so riled up and you feel like you have the game in your hand and just something just slips up. Like I said, it’s communication. It was all closed in. We didn’t even see the other man move out. I guess they were breaking a huddle and moved somebody real quick where we didn’t see it, so they kept getting us with that. Every touchdown they had was a miss assignment. They didn’t earn one touchdown they had. One guy was wide open; the other guy was wide open. The long run, the guy jumped the gap and busted open something. They didn’t deserve anything. None of those touchdowns they had. It’s upsetting, but like I said, we got to go back and practice and fix our mistakes.”
Brown on what steps they have to take to improve the communication:
“More hand signals. Looking at each other, when the place is rocking, you want to win the game so bad and you give it your all and then it just slips right past. It takes the air out of us. It sucks real bad. Like I said, we just have to come back and be ready.”
What does all this mean?
Don’t let anyone tell you how to fan. It’s perfectly understandable to be disappointed or just plain mad. I was. I am.
This week will be flush with influencers all but daring you to give up on this team and coaches. With a mind of my own, I will certainly will not. Each game offers unique opportunities to learn, improve, and redirect. Unfortunately, lessons from UK’s loss to Florida will go down in Wildcat lore. The Cats are 3-1. It plays Eastern Michigan next Saturday.