The fall from the mountaintop has been far from graceful. Five quarters of football ago, Kentucky was steamrolling a top ten team. Now, the Cats are 2-2 after an ugly first half of football in Starkville.
Before you wave the white flag or throw in the towel, allow me to remind you that it’s just one game.
To say the Cats were bad in the first half would be an understatement, but this team did not quit. They fought tooth and nail and had the chance to win on the road before ultimately failing to capitalize on fourth quarter opportunities. If they bring that fight to the second half of the season, there’s plenty of success that can be salvaged.
Before the season, the dream scenario was a 2-1 record through the Florida-Miss. State-South Carolina stretch of games. Even if Kentucky falls to 0-3 in this stretch, winning eight regular season games for just the second time since the mid-80s is still in play thanks to a lackluster second half of the schedule. If you’re prepared to write off a sixth straight win vs. South Carolina, allow me to inform you that South Carolina got housed 34-14 today at Missouri.
We saw talent in the trenches and in the backfield in Starkville. A.J. Rose had his first 100-yard rushing day, getting 105 yards on only nine carries. We also saw some serious deficiencies could plague the team for the rest of the season.
In week one, Kentucky’s wide receivers had their best game in recent memory. A month after not dropping a pass for 60 minutes, UK’s wideouts dropped three passes that would have scored touchdowns. If Lynn Bowden reels in the long bombs, Kentucky does not have to go to the red zone, its worst enemy in 2019. Without Benny Snell chewing up yards, UK has left the red zone without scoring on five of its 16 attempts, just over 30% of the time. That is losing football.
Kentucky would not leave the red zone empty-handed so often if Chance Poore could kick from the hashmarks. He can kick any ball straight, but once it gets to the hashes, it’s out. It’s hard to win football games win your kicker can’t help you hang around when you are not at your best. UK may have to roll with Matt Ruffalo if Poore cannot shake off the dreaded yips.
The harshest reality to accept is that Terry Wilson is gone for the season. After an exceptional first start, Sawyer Smith took a step back in Starkville, throwing a pick six on his second pass attempt and completing just 15-of-41 throws. Will Smith improve? Sure. This mirrors what happened when he was inserted into the starting role at Troy. Even so, Kentucky cannot live up to their potential without Terry Wilson at quarterback.
The passing game doesn’t get any better on the other side of the football. Garrett Shrader entered this game completing 47 percent of his passes through two games. Tonight he completed 17-of-22 (77%) for 180 yards. Through four games, opposing quarterbacks have been able to get whatever they want underneath. That doesn’t look like it’s changing anytime soon.
The Big Blue Nation learned some harsh realities in Starkville. Mark Stoops’ team can fight through some of the early season growing pains to get back on track, although, fixing the problems in the offensive and defensive passing game might not happen at all. It does not mean that Kentucky still can’t be successful in the second half of the season. How they perform next Saturday in Columbia will tell us if they’re prepared to fight to make things right.