Rewind to 2013 and relive the Nashville inferno and the reality that surfaced upon kick-off. Kentucky had damning personnel deficiencies and finished the season at 2-10. In that same season, Auburn played Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game. It finished 13-2.
Fast forward to Thursday night. Personnel wise, the playing field was even. The end result, frustrating: Auburn 30, Kentucky 27. The Cats lost a game that many felt it should have won. It didn’t. Does this emotion (frustration) describe the BBN’s mismanagement of expectation? Somewhat, thus fan frustration is virtuous. Was it realistic for the BBN to expect to beat a team that’s two years removed from playing for the Crystal Ball? Absolutely. By my definition, it can be described as progress.
Kentucky is 4-2 with a challenging three game stretch at Mississippi State, Tennessee, and at Georgia. But should we pause to appreciate the four wins or bemoan the two losses? Somewhere in the middle lies reality. There’s no way to sugar-coat the game’s result. Kentucky let one slip through their fingers, both literally and figuratively.
Opportunities like the one that presented itself on Thursday don’t come around very often. When it surfaces; Kentucky must pounce. A Kentucky victory would have disrupted SEC hierarchy. A lasting image would have been created by defeating the Auburn brand. Thursday was proof that preseason polls are meaningless projections. Give Auburn credit for the win and for making plays when it needed to do so. However, Auburn is not a Top 10 team as depicted in mid-July. The Tigers are much like Kentucky, an average SEC football team. Progress or point of frustration? Depends on your outlook.
Enough philosophy, let’s look at the numbers and factors that led to outcome:
SCORE: Auburn 23, Kentucky 10
First Downs: AU 15, UK 9
Total Yards: AU 48 plays 297 yards, UK 31 plays resulting in 240 yards.
Passing: Sean White, 12-18 186 yards. Patrick Towles, 10-18 for 161 yards and 1 INT.
Kick-off Return Yards: AU 3 for 72 yards. UK 1 for 18 yards.
Punt Yards Average: AU 37, UK 33.5
Time of Possession: AU 17:06, UK 12:54
3rd Down Conversions: AU 8/11, UK 3/6
Simply stated, the first half was a good ole fashioned butt whoopin’. Unexplainably, Auburn’s supposed weakness became its strength. Freshman QB Sean White unexpectedly shredded the Wildcat defense. Even more troubling, the Tigers converted 72.7% on third down. UK’s pass rush was all but absent. On more than one occasion, White had five seconds to pick and choose his target. Combine the lack of pass rush with an apparent overabundance of cushion in the secondary, and the result was Tiger domination.
AU’s tempo led to UK substitution glitches. This factor was at least expected. But many, including me, anticipated Auburn to prosper in the run, but not in the passing game. That didn’t happen. Kentucky’s incompetent pass defense came against a freshman quarterback who attempted only two second half passes against San Jose State. With Dak Prescott on the horizon, one can’t help but to worry. Auburn definitely made the most of its Bye Week. Again, credit Gus Malzahn and Sean White.
There were positives. Garrett Johnson’s 5 catches for 103 yards excited. Boom Williams got out to a fast start with 74 yards on just 5 carries. Patrick Towles played efficiently, but a red zone interception stalled a potential scoring opportunity. The dreaded dropsies again reared their ugly head. The first half just didn’t feel or look right. Total disclosure, at intermission, I was unapologetically irritated. Understanding that there must be a level of objectivity in the press box, the culmination of 30 minutes of missed opportunity overwhelmed impartiality. A complete expectation management failure was in full effect.
FINAL SCORE: Auburn 30, Kentucky 27
A look at the final numbers:
First Downs: AU-21, UK-25
Rushing: AU-152 yards, UK-138
Average Yards Per Rush: AU-3.2, UK-4.2
Passing: Sean White: 17-28 for 255 yards. Patrick Towles: 27-44, 359 yards and 1 INT.
Total Offensive Yards: AU-407, UK-497
Kick-off returns: AU 6-155 yards, UK 1-18
Time of Possession: AU 28:27, UK 30:33
3rd Down Conversion: AU 11/18 (61.1%), UK 5/13 (38.4%)
*Prior to Thursday, AU defense allowed 47% conversion ratio
Quarterback Sacks By: AU 3, UK 1
*Prior to Thursday, AU averaged 1.7 QB sacks per game.
Kentucky put up a valiant but inconsistent second half fight. But at least it fought. The game was a tale of two halves. Auburn won the first, UK the second. But a consistent theme that led to the Cat’s demise was the inability to capitalize on opportunities throughout critical junctures of the game. Dropped passes continued. One in particular was in the end-zone. Patrick Towles settled into the game. Explosive plays resurfaced. Going into Thursday, Towles’ prior two games 4th quarter numbers were 15-18 for 175 yards and 2 TD’s. Thursday didn’t equal, but was good enough to win. On occasion, Towles’ completed next-level throws.
Any offense that racks up 497 yards should score more than 27 points. However, UK was dominated in the hidden yards categories. Short kick-offs are an area that has to be corrected, now. Punting also continued to be unreliable. For the game, UK punted four times for an average of 35 yards. When opportunity to pin Auburn inside its ten yard line presented, the football sailed into the end-zone. This may sound overly critical or simplistic, but cannot be ignored.
Kentucky had more than its share of chances to win the football game. It didn’t take advantage. UK’s defense accurately adjusted but continued fundamental errors verses the pass. On Auburn’s initial fourth quarter drive, it was flagged for illegal substitution. On the following play, the normally reliable safety duo of AJ Stamps and Marcus McWilson were split by Ricardo Louis for a 34 yard completion. Three plays later, touchdown Auburn. In too many situations, the Cats were close, but just couldn’t finish. Finish, a word we’ve heard Mark Stoops say at least 10,000 times. His team didn’t finish on Thursday. A point of frustration that was evident in his post-game press conference.
THE FINAL DRIVE
Down 30-27, Kentucky forced Auburn to punt from its own 47 yard line. The following ensued in the game’s final 2:12.
-1st and 10 on UK’s 15 yard line: Towles to JoJo Kemp pass attempt resulted in a drop.
-2nd and 10: Patrick Towles completes a pass to Boom Williams for a seven yard gain. PENTALTY, holding.
-2nd and 13: Towles pass complete to Jeff Badet for 14 yards, 1st down.
-1st and 10: Towles to Garrett Johnson for a 23 yard gain.
-1st and 10 on UK 49: Towles to Dorian Baker for a 5 yards.
-2nd and 5: Boom Williams rush for a two yard gain. This play would become a point of debate.
-3rd and 3: Towles attempted a vertical pass to Jeff Badet, incomplete.
-4th and 3: Patrick Towles was sacked by Justin Garrett. From snap to sack, the play had very little chance for success.
The elephant in the room is the Boom Williams run on 2nd and 5. Not necessarily a bad play call. For the game, Boom was averaging 7.1 yards per carry. You have to trust your playmakers in those situations. 3rd down result was an incomplete pass to Jeff Badet. Patrick went through his progressions, Badet had defender in an opportunistic position and the pass was attempted. Football happens. The 4th down QB sack was plain ugly. In the media room, offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson was peppered with questions, as was Mark Stoops. The media and BBN wanted answers regarding the final drive. Valid arguments could be made that short to intermediate passes would have been more likely to succeed than the Boom Williams run and vertical incompletion.
The same two minute offense worked against EKU. On Thursday at the end of the second and fourth quarter, the Wildcat hurry-up was detrimental and ineffective. Finishing those two drives alone could have resulted in a 10 point swing in favor of the Cats. Yet another example of Kentucky’s minuscule margin of error. SEC wins are earned, not given.
Back to work, return to practice, and prepare for Mississippi State. The SEC is unforgiving. But it’s hard to not imagine “what if” Kentucky would have finished. Not so much on a certain drive or play, but for the evening. So we end where we started, frustrated due to increased expectations. Progress. I’ll take 4-2 with six games being decided on the final drive, over being outplayed in every way during Mark Stoops’ initial program overhaul. The 2015 Wildcats can be described as frustratingly progressing. Sure as heck beats the alternative.