Coming off the most frustrating performance of the season, it’s time to forego the niceties and get real with this Kentucky football team. Midway through the season, they’re 4-2 and two wins from a bowl game. They’re also 4-6 plays away from being 6-0. There have been flashes of brilliance and unforgivable errors, both of which were clearly on display against Auburn. Six games in, I’m still trying to figure out how good this team is.
Since Thursday night, I’ve been going back and forth on a few of the issues facing this team and since I’m tired of debating myself, I put those thoughts on paper — err, screen — this afternoon.
POINT: Shannon Dawson’s playcalling with two minutes left was baffling
Down three with 2:12 left, Kentucky had a chance to tie or win the game. After the offense clicked into gear in the second half, things looked promising, too. Towles easily moved the ball down the field and just as you started to believe the Cats could pull off the upset, Boom Williams ran two yards on an inside draw on second down. The intent was to catch Auburn off guard with the run and set up Austin MacGinnis for the game-tying field goal, but the Tigers stopped Williams short and two frustrating plays later, the game was over.
I can see what Dawson is trying to do, but why abandon the passing game that worked so well that drive, especially for a run up the middle when you have little time and no timeouts to spare? Dawson took a lot of heat for the call and his slighty smart-assed response of “If it would’ve worked, it would’ve been great” didn’t help.
COUNTERPOINT: He’s clearly not afraid to take a chance
After the first of many deep balls against Louisiana Lafayette, we learned that Dawson clearly isn’t afraid to take a chance. For the most part, Dawson’s playcalling has been solid, and it’s worth pointing out that he’s learning on the fly after Dana Holgorsen called the majority of plays at West Virginia. If anything, that inside draw call will be a learning experience for years to come.
POINT: The drops — namely by Dorian Baker — are becoming costly
Look, I love Dorian Baker. You love Dorian Baker. The football gods really had some fun when they put him together. Big, strong, and freakishly athletic, Baker has accounted for some of the most impressive catches of the season; however, he’s also accounted for some of the most costly drops. He’s not alone; while Kentucky’s receiving corps is as strong as it’s been in recent years, the receivers had a major case of the butterfingers on Thursday night, with several crucial drops, including one by Baker in the end zone that could have given Kentucky the lead. There were more by Jeff Badet and Boom Williams, but unfortunately, it’s Dorian that’s earning a reputation as a repeat offender.
COUNTERPOINT: Drops can be corrected
You take the good with the bad, and without Baker, Kentucky probably have lost the Eastern Kentucky game. Drops are incredibly frustrating, but can be corrected by, you know, HANGING ON TO THE BALL. At the beginning of fall camp, Garrett Johnson — solid, reliable Garrett Johnson — started the practice of doing 20 pushups whenever a receiver dropped a pass. If that’s still going on, at least our wide receivers will have buff triceps.
POINT: The kicking game has become a liability
Special teams get a raw deal. When they do their job well, they never get the credit they deserve, and when things go poorly, they take all the heat. Still battling a groin injury, UK’s kicker Austin MacGinnis was able to kick filed goals on Thursday, but the kickoff duties went to redshirt freshman Miles Butler. Butler struggled Thursday night, with no touchbacks and Auburn starting most of their drives outside their 30-yard-line. Auburn’s returners totaled 155 yards on returns to UK’s 18. Ouch.
Senior punter Landon Foster isn’t faring much better. Foster, once so reliable, averaged only 35 yards per punt Thursday, looking like a shell of his former self. There are few better people in this world than Landon Foster, who has made this program proud in so many ways; however, his performance on the field lately is disappointing.
COUNTERPOINT: There’s nowhere to go but up
Thankfully, Mark Stoops told reporters today that MacGinnis will be back for kick-offs against Mississippi State, so that hopefully solves that problem. Meanwhile, Foster is trying his best to concentrate on the second half of the season, taking on a self-imposed Twitter ban:
Time to reevaluate, reset, and attack the second half of this season with a new mindset. See ya twitter peeps.
— Landon Foster (@BigBlueKick12) October 19, 2015
You got this, Landon.
POINT: Kentucky squandered away two winnable games
Kentucky made so many errors in the first half of the Auburn game that a comeback was nearly impossible. The fact that they battled back and had a chance to win the game in the final two minutes and messed that up was the cherry on top of a shit sundae. Kentucky was a few plays away from beating Florida as well, a loss that still stings even though the Gators have been one of the surprises of the SEC so far. Take away some of the blunders against Florida and Auburn and Kentucky could be 6-0 right now; however, had the ball bounced the other way a few times, they could also be 0-6.
COUNTERPOINT: Those games were winnable
Two years ago, Kentucky wasn’t in a position to win any SEC game. The talent level was that low. Last year, the Cats got their first SEC wins under Stoops, but mentally and physically collapsed during the second half of the season. This year, Kentucky has fielded the better team in every game they’ve played with maybe the exception of Florida. In four instances, talent has been enough to overcome errors, and twice, it wasn’t. Once you put the disappointment aside, the fact that each game thus far (and, in my opinion, the rest of the season) has been winnable is a testament to the progress Mark Stoops and his staff have made.
POINT: Kentucky hasn’t played a complete game yet
Here’s a rough list of when the Cats have played well this season:
- First half against Louisiana Lafayette
- First half against South Carolina
- Second half against Florida
- Second half against Missouri
- Second half against Eastern Kentucky
- Second half against Auburn
My point is, Kentucky has yet to put together a complete game. In every single outing, at least one unit has underperformed, whether it be the defense, offense, or special teams. Fortunately, four times out of six, Kentucky has done what they needed to do to escape with a win.
COUNTERPOINT: Kentucky hasn’t played a complete game yet
Can you imagine how good this team could be if they strung together two good halves of football? The thought alone gives me goosebumps. While the upcoming gauntlet of Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Georgia is daunting, it’s followed by three winnable games against Vanderbilt, Charlotte, and Louisville. Kentucky just needs two of those to get to a bowl, but if they can finally turn in a complete performance, there’s no one left on the schedule they can’t beat.