Mark Stoops’ first bowl game as a head coach was my first Kentucky bowl game. Even though we left without an ideal result, the reward for Kentucky’s 7-5 regular season was still an enriching experience. Here’s the good and the bad, beginning with the bad (around the New Year, you must always finish with the glass half full).
5. The Basketball Watch Party
I do not intend to put the UK Alumni Association on blast. The event was fine with the hand they were dealt, but it’s an example of the biggest problem with the TaxSlayer Bowl: Jacksonville simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to support the BBN. In other locales — Nashville, New Orleans, Vegas — there are plenty of places for large crowds to congregate and everyone can still be accommodated. That was not the case in Jacksonville.
4. Watching the Triple Option
When the matchup with Georgia Tech was announced, there was a a collective sigh across Kentucky. I was convinced Kentucky would be able to figure it out after 15 practices, but I was wrong.
You can’t simulate linemen diving at your knees for 60 minutes in practice. You can’t simulate the speed of their offensive and defensive lines. You can’t not get bored watching it. All you can do is get annoyed and fall on the ball when it’s loose. Unfortunately, every time the ball was loose, it bounced right back into Tech’s hands.
Tech didn’t play dirty. Tech simply plays a style that incites postgame fights in the parking lots.
3. The Referees
There were more than a handful of, “what in the hell was that?” calls. My least favorite was the Kash Daniel “piling on” penalty, which took UK out of field goal range after Tech’s opening third quarter drive. Mark Stoops’ least favorite call was at the end of the second half. No one could explain to him why the clock didn’t run, allowing the Yellow Jackets to kick a field goal as time expired . Essentially, their ineptitude gave Tech three points (if you’re keeping track, that’s at least six more points for GT).
Stoops gave the refs hell all the way back to their halftime locker room. When they shut him out, he kicked their locker room door, then threw a Gatorade cooler at the door to cap off a fantastic tirade. They better hope they never bump into him on the streets of Youngstown.
2. Bye Bye Boom
I wish Mr. Williams nothing but the the best moving forward, but it stinks that we won’t get another year of Booms. He’s battled injuries, now it’s his time to monetize his elite athleticism. Still, I am greedy and wish I could see him do fantastic things for another year in a Kentucky uniform. He’s done so much for the Kentucky football program, it’s hard to pick a favorite moment, but this is the one I’ll never forget.
1. The Scoop and Score
The stadium was rocking. The game started perfectly with a deep out to Dorian Baker. The Cats were rolling. All was going according to plan. Then the wind was sucked out of the stadium.
The Cats had plenty of time to overcome adversity, but it wasn’t just an anomaly. UK’s offensive line got their ass kicked all game by the speed of Georgia Tech. Kentucky had the advantage in the passing game, but Stephen Johnson rarely had enough time to release the ball. Johnson willed two late scores to add some juice to the game, but it was too little, too late.
The night before beginning my bowl week, I took Freddie Maggard’s advice and stayed the night in Georgia’s coastal paradise. I’d heard good things from many, still, it surpassed all of my expectations. We only had about four hours to explore the historic downtown, but I enjoyed the unique design and the delicious fish and chips.
4. Jon Toth’s Last Press Conference
A man not known for his sense of humor, in his final press conference Toth was filled with zingers. You have to appreciate dry humor to appreciate Toth’s remarks, just like you have to appreciate consistency to enjoy his play at a position that is more difficult and important than most realize.
Jon Toth in all his glory pic.twitter.com/aUj2LIAr5F
– Curtis Burch (@curtisburch) December 30, 2016
Jon Toth the comedian? pic.twitter.com/CaFPagAjZr
– Curtis Burch (@curtisburch) December 30, 2016
You will be missed Mr. Toth, and not by just Freddie Maggard.
3. Top Golf
It took a lot for me to not put this at No. 1. I could not stop laughing during my first 20 minutes on location. As a person who isn’t terrible at golf, I received so much joy watching much better athletes flail like toddlers learning new motor skills for the first time.
For probably the first time in five years, I got to see UK football players in a relaxed environment where they could be themselves. Interviewing them with a dozen other reporters doesn’t produce genuine conversation. It was nice to chat with a few guys and just talk about stuff, instead of staring at them through a screen discussing football.
2. The UK Pep Rally
The Big Blue Nation never disappoints, but rarely I’m surprised to see just how crazy you people are. I was surprised to see the crowd of thousands Friday night at Jacksonville Landing. Bowl games are supposed to be a reward for the fans and Friday night felt like a reward. Despite dissension throughout the year, it was heartwarming to see everyone on the same page, happy to be Kentucky football fans.
1. A New Year’s Eve Bowl
Every once in awhile with this job, I forget I’m working and have a “Holy Shit” moment. When I walked onto the turf at EverBank Field on Saturday, I had a “Holy Shit” moment. After four years of football seasons featuring teams that didn’t average four wins, I was covering UK at a New Year’s Eve Bowl in Florida.
It was a wild football season, filled with epic collapses, nail-biting finishes and a victory on the road against a Heisman Trophy winning rival. Some may be disappointed in the finish, some may say the Cats were just happy to be there. Consider me just happy to be there.
If 2017 is anything like 2016, Kentucky football fans are in for a treat.