First and foremost, credit the EKU Colonels for overcoming unimaginably tragic circumstances as it traveled twenty minutes north up I-75 with total intention of winning the football game. It did so, and in convincing fashion for 53 minutes. During that stretch of time, the Colonels out-hustled, executed, coached, and out-willed the preemptive favorites.
It could have been worse, much worse. Down 27-13, many fans had seen enough. Heck, at halftime, several headed to the house. With 7:39 remaining in regulation, UK woke up and decided it was time to play. That awakening doesn’t come just by simply turning on a mythical sideline switch. Finding a way to win in the face of adversity is a culmination of leadership, psychological assertiveness, and accountability development led by UK staffers that diligently work behind the scenes. Given the doldrums that preceded the Mark Stoops era, learning to win is a process.
— Kentucky’s rushing total for the night: 36 attempts, 55 yards. Given negated ground gains due to sacks, that’s totally unacceptable.
What happened: An undersized and undermanned EKU defensive front and linebackers gave the Kentucky offensive line fits. Linebacker Chris Kelly’s 11 tackles including a sack described Colonel defensive intent. That was, to take the fight to the Cats. For 53 minutes, Eastern was the hunter, UK was the hunted.
— EKU totaled 5 sacks for a loss of 33 yards. One QB sack was on Patrick Towles. A veteran quarterback should know better than to take a sack on first down and simply throw the football away. The other 4 are what worries.
What happened: EKU linebackers effectively blitzed as well as DEs Noah Spence and Marquise Piton were forceful off the edge. This comes a week after surrendering only 2 QB sacks against the SEC’s top defense. Colonel blitzes were not complicated by nature. Effort and determination to reach the UK QB topped scheme
— Eastern Kentucky dominated the line of scrimmage. On too many occasions, the Cats fell behind the chains on 1st down. Not a problem if it converted 3rd downs as it did against Missouri by going 9/14 (64%). On Saturday, the Cats were 7/16 (43.7%) with many of those coming in the game’s final seven minutes.
What happened: Great question, will take film evaluation to confirm. Have to chalk much of EKU’s front seven success to grit and determination. At many points in the game, it was obvious that EKU wanted to win the game more so than UK. That factor became the burr in the BBN saddle. I know it was mine.
— Eastern Kentucky’s rush total: 51 attempts for 180 yards. Colonels won first down. With a plethora of 2nd and 5’s, offensive coordinator Dane Damron had the upper hand for most of the evening.
What happened: EKU runners ran with more determination than their counterparts. Yards after initial contact were staggering and favored EKU. Kentucky’s linebackers did not tackle with the same tenacity and efficiency as it did against Florida and Missouri.
— Colonels ran 83 plays for 363 yards of total offense. It converted 8/18 3rd downs (44%), a percentage that dropped in the game’s final seven minutes.
What happened: An undersized EKU offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage. Only CJ Johnson seemed to gain consistent penetration which caused disruption. However, many of his 19 tackles were across the line of scrimmage. Johnson did have 3 tackles for loss and a QB sack, but got very little help from his defensive line mates.
— EKU’s Benny Coney completed 19/32 passes for 183 yards. By evading would be sackers, Coney found holes in the UK secondary for completions that moved the chains. The Colonels also completed opportune screen passes when DJ Eliot dialed up blitzes.
What happened: I counted 4 missed QB sack opportunities. Again, film will be telling to see if that number is low. Ryan Flannigan had 2 direct paths to Coney but whiffed. Steady Josh Forrest had a miss as well. As a whole, the Wildcat LB corps did not play with the same efficiency level as it did against either Florida or Missouri. Credit Coney for his evasiveness and the EKU offensive line for countering UK blitzes.
— Can’t leave out the third phase, there’s enough blame to throw around and it shouldn’t be left out. Landon Foster’s punting has to improve. Low, and short punts to the dangerous returner we’ve discussed all week, Stanley Absannon, hurt UK’s coverage team as Absannon’s 27 yard punt return shortened the field for an EKU touchdown drive.
— Kickoff coverage also struggled. Absannon’s 5 returns totaled 127 yards for an average of 25.4 yards
— The loss of Austin MacGinnis was more impactful than imaginable. Stanley Absannon’s 5 returns totaled 127 yards. Short kicks with little height put the coverage team in a precarious situation.
— Kentucky overcame a late 14-point deficit to score 21 unanswered to win the football game. Should it have been that close? Absolutely not, but EKU had something to say about that. Again, credit the Colonels.
— For all the “Same ole Kentucky Football” thinkers, give the Cats credit for finding the fortitude to refuse to lose. It could have been worse.
— In the first half, Patrick Towles’ 52.6% completion percentage and two interceptions worried. However, one of the picks was a 50/50 ball that EKU’s Stanley Absannon outdueled Dorian Baker for the INT. Football happens. His second INT was an ill-advised vertical route against a cover 2 with the safety easily breaking from the hash to make the play.
— However, in the final two drives of regulation and overtime period, Patrick Towles took control of the offense and game by finishing the night by going 29-42 for 329 yards with 3 TDs. When the Cats needed touchdowns, Patrick delivered. He finished the second half and overtime completing 82% passes.
— Dorian Baker is playing up to reputation. Baker was simply fantastic with 8 catches for 86 yards including 2 touchdowns worth of athletic freakishness.
— Blake Bone played his best game of the season. Bone’s 7 catches for 85 yards came the hard way. Several of his grabs were drive extenders as well as through diving catches. Bone has worked incredibly hard to solidify his status as the fellow outside threat along with Dorian Baker. With few passes targeted in his direction this season, Bone could have easily crawled in a hole and pouted. He did the exact opposite. His scramble movement and catch in the void of the EKU defense were demonstrations of his development and determination.
— Cory Johnson’s 19 tackles, 1 QB sack, and 3 tackles for loss was the most dominating defensive linemen performance in UK history. CJ’s last three games have been spectacular in nature and are certainly All-SEC worthy by statistics alone. CJ’s best traits are his motor and ability to split double teams. Going forward, offensive coordinators will have to scheme against the senior.
— Down 27-13, UK’s backs were against the proverbial wall. It fought back. Defensive stops and two, two-minute drive touchdowns tied the game. By doing so, Kentucky gave itself a chance to win the game in overtime. It did. It could have been worse.
— As we discussed on the podcast and posts leading up to Saturday, EKU was more talented than most expected. As I see it, this year’s EKU team is nearly the same in personnel as Mark Stoop’s first roster. In the game’s final seven minutes and overtime, Wildcat talent and player development prevailed.
— Kicker Miles Butler, have a night young man. After missing his first career PAT attempt, the backup nailed his next four with the final three being under extreme duress. Following Dorian Baker’s five-yard touchdown reception with: 57 remaining in the game, what was left of the crowd collectively exhaled as the reserve split the uprights to tie the game at 27. Then, in overtime, Cats scored on another Dorian Baker TD catch which was followed by another successful Butler PAT. As an unexpected visitor to the press conference, his post-game smile was priceless.
What does all this mean?
Kentucky is 4-1. Could easily be 0-5; however it’s not. All five games have been decided by eight points or less. Glass half-full says that the Cats are resilient and finally understand how to win close games. Question, how many tight games have you witnessed the Cats lose throughout the years? Glass half-empty thinking leads to the doom and gloom that a come-from-behind win over a 1AA team means either that the sky has fallen or that Armageddon is sure to take place within the next 10 days. I lean towards the glass half-full route.
Why optimism following a near loss against an OVC opponent? UK played Florida to a five-point loss that it easily could have won if it would have taken advantage of key plays in critical situations. The Cats beat South Carolina on the road and topped a Top 25 Missouri team. Is UK as good as it played against Missouri, Florida, and South Carolina or is it as bad as it played on Saturday verses EKU? Truth is somewhere in the middle, which is pretty darn good in my book. Florida rolled #3 Ole Miss and is now 5-0 and leading the SEC East. Mizzou bounced back following its Commonwealth Stadium loss and beat Carolina at home. This season should be celebrated to this point, not chastised due to a single flat performance coming off one of the biggest wins in the program’s recent history. It could have been worse.
Twelve games is a long season comprised of a dozen individual playoff contests. In basketball terms, or more specifically, March Madness, UK won and advanced. I understand concerns, heck above are lists of alarms. But game film from yet another close win will only assist in player teachable moments. UK will enter the Auburn game with an edge. Mark Stoops will peel Nutter Center paint of the walls throughout a couple days of corrections.
This Kentucky team’s margin of error is miniscule. Been saying that for over a month now. Throughout the remainder of the schedule, there will be more nail biters. Get used to it. That’s the nature of the game and a result of a program that is in year three of a total overhaul. Kentucky is not at a personnel level to weekly dominate opponents. Don’t work that way. Three recruiting cycles have been successful, but to get to the level of talent that is required to consistently win games by double digits takes time.
I had an uneasy feeling about this game all week. First cold weather game, coming off the Missouri win, Auburn on the horizon, and playing down a level were all worrisome. That gut feeling came to fruition. UK won, but it did so in an ugly fashion. Could that be the norm for 2015? I sure hope so, because winning ugly certainly beats the alternative. It could have been worse.