Two games with first half dominance followed by a second half of hanging on for dear life. One game of offensive struggles accompanied by four quarters of defensive accomplishment. Opening game missed field goal and a point after attempt verses a 3/3 night with a special teams blocked FG. Who is this team? How would you define the 2015 Wildcat football team? I’ve been asking myself those questions all week.
Saturday’s game against the back-to-back SEC East champion is much more than a home conference matchup. There’s more on the line than a W or L. Following last week’s Gator let-down (an understandable overreaction by the way), the BBN is demanding to see offensive improvement. Even though UK thrived in two out of the three phases of the game (defense and special teams), fans want to see touchdowns, not field goals. Commonwealth Stadium was ready to roar, the team provided too few of moments in which it could release.
While the Cats’ defensive prowess and effort were appreciated, there was an undeniable urge to collapse the goal posts and put an emphatic end to the 28-year embarrassing losing streak. That didn’t happen. Disgruntled fans left Commonwealth Stadium wanting more. Others unfortunately left and may not return. Annually, the Wildcat football team gets four weeks to impress in order extend its season into November. Fair or not, that’s a Lexington reality. Madness campout starts next week. Focus will begin to shift. The football team just doesn’t need to win on Saturday, it needs the WOW that will entice fans to return to Commonwealth Stadium.
“Getting offensively right” will not come easy. Missouri is the SEC’s top rated defense and is allowing 9.7 points through three games. Defensive end Charles Harris is next in the long line of Tiger elite pass rushers. Linebacker Kentrell Brothers leads the nation in tackles. Cornerbacks Aarion Penton and Kenya Dennis are dangerous and arguably one of the SEC’s Top three CB combinations. Missouri is riding an eleven game road winning streak. Teams led by Gary Pinkel have won five out of the last eight division titles in both the Big 12 and SEC. To say that beating Missouri is going to be difficult would be a tremendous understatement.
However, there are cracks in the Tiger armor. In SEC ratings, Missouri is dead last in both total and rushing offense. Last week’s 9-6 rock fight win over UCONN was ugly. But Mizzou isn’t above winning in that manner. Quarterback
Maty Matthew Mauk is experiencing some of the same indictments that Patrick Towles is currently going through. Actually, in the first three games, the junior was replaced by true freshman Drew Lock. His absence wasn’t permanent, acting as a either a wakeup call or to simply help Pinkel prepare for the future. The return of running back Russell Hansbrough may ease Missouri’s offensive woes. Regardless, UK’s opponent is far from an offensive juggernaut by any stretch of the imagination.
How Kentucky Wins
Maty Matthew Mauk in the pocket. His elusiveness, especially in the fourth quarter, has been the demise of many opponents. With a 17-4 record as a starting quarterback, he is best described as a winner. Improvisation is his strongest attribute.
–Score early points. Patrick Towles and the UK offense desperately needs wins. Each first down and each explosive play can be considered a win. First quarter success will influence the cautiously optimistic fans back into a pre-Florida temperament. If Kentucky’s offense staggers out of the gate, boo birds will start chirping.
–Protect the passer. Coach John Schlarman’s meeting room walls probably need to be re-painted after Monday’s film session. Mizzou leads the SEC in tackles for loss. Linebackers Kentrell Brothers and Michael Sherer are active, disruptive, and cerebral defenders. With a recent history of producing NFL defensive lineman, the Tigers will present all kinds of problems at the line of scrimmage. Defensive ends Charles Harris, Marcell Frazier, and Walter Brady are relentless off the edge. Inside, Josh Augustus, Terry Beckner, and Rickey Hatley are powerfully imposing. An improved and efficient performance by the Wildcat big fellas is non-negotiable.
-Catch the dag gone football. No more wrist watches or nicknames. When opportunities are presented, UK receivers will need to make plays. I’m not talking circus catches, but more so basic and fundamental grabs. There is zero doubt that Kentucky is talented and extremely well coached at receiver. On Saturday, potential has to meet production. The proof is in results.
–Have a lead going into the fourth quarter. “Mizzou Made” is a program slogan that describes overall player development in Columbia. However, the Tigers have won many games in the fourth quarter due to a steady and opportunistic defense, as well as poised quarterback play from Mauk. Mauk may be inconsistent in the first three periods, but in 2014 he led the SEC in quarterback efficiency rating in the final quarter. Missouri expects to win and understands how to do so. Extending and then overtaking games in the final period have proved successful.
A Season Defined
There’s no dancing around the issue, Patrick Towles has to play better than he did against Florida. With a similar experience against Missouri, public outcry for backup Drew Barker may develop into a legitimate quarterback controversy. Patrick needs to play composed and provide a calming presence to his teammates. But most importantly, he needs to be consistent. Erratic offensive execution against a defense of this stature could lead to disaster.
I really don’t like this part of the job. But, I have a responsibility to be objective in personnel and team assessments. Against Florida, nobody in Commonwealth Stadium wanted to win more than Patrick. I’m pulling for him to play well on Saturday. I’ve done the same for every Kentucky quarterback for several years now. A long time ago, fans called for my benching and at times, called for my head. I understand criticism and scrutiny. It’s not fun. Quarterbacks receive too much praise and criticism. However, empathy doesn’t trump reality, football is a game measured by wins and losses. Nothing else matters. It should, but it doesn’t.
A win on Saturday means a 3-1 September. With a likely win over EKU, the Cats would be 4-1 going into its Thursday night matchup against Auburn. With Vanderbilt and Charlotte remaining on the schedule, bowl eligibility would then become a likelihood as well as a new minimum expectation.
A Missouri loss pushes the Cats to 2-2 with three games left on its schedule in which it will be considered a favorite: EKU, Vanderbilt, and Charlotte. Thus, the Cats will have to pull off at least one conference upset and beat Louisville in the season finale. Not an impossibility, but definitely more challenging than the scenario that starts at 4-1.
Every game is a must win. In essence every Saturday defines a season. I get that. But Kentucky vs. Missouri goes beyond that. The Wildcats are favored at home against a ranked SEC opponent. Even Oscar Combs would struggle to recall the last time that has happened. Opportunities were there to beat the Gators; UK simply didn’t exploit them. he same will happen on Saturday. It’s time for the Cats to stop knocking on the opportunity’s door and kick it off its hinges. Against Missouri, the BBN wants to be Shown.