After watching the Kentucky-Auburn game a couple times, the same conclusions surfaced: UK had several chances to not only win the football game, but to blow it wide open. And in terms of talent, in just three years, UK has evened the playing field with upper-middle echelon SEC teams; however, when opportunity doesn’t meet production, talent is negated. Final Score: Auburn 30-27.
FIRST HALF OBSERVATIONS: Auburn’s 3rd down dominance
Offensively, Auburn efficiently utilized its bye week by identifying vulnerabilities in UK’s pass defense. To best summarize first half action, 3rd downs must be analyzed. Early on, momentum was in AU’s favor. This was mostly due to its 3rd down success. The following describes the Tiger’s 3rd down success on six of its first seven opportunities:
— 3rd and 7: QB Sean White had seven seconds of uninterrupted field scanning before completing a 27 yard pass in a scramble drill play.
— 3rd and 9: AU ran a WR short crossing route. No pass rush, White completed the pass, first down.
— 3rd and 4: WR Ricardo Louis found a void between the athletically out-matched Jabari Johnson and freshman CB Chris Westry for completion. Westry’s unnecessary roughness call added even more yards to the play.
— 3rd and 6: Again, WR Ricardo Louis with an eight yard gain. During the initial period, Kentucky’s pass rush was non-existent.
— 3rd and Goal: Wildcat quarterback Kerryon Johnson swept to the right behind two pulling guards. DE Farrington Huguennin was blocked down, containment lost, touchdown Tigers.
— 3rd and 16: Huguennin batted down a screen pass as the Cats forced Auburn to punt.
— 3rd and 3: Play action pass, gain of 15. First down Tigers.
In addition to third-down triumphs, Auburn hurt the Wildcats with tempo and timely personnel substitutions. Most experts felt that with freshman Sean White starting at quarterback, AU would heavily rely upon its run game. In the first two periods, the exact opposite happened.
Sean White completed 12-18 passes for 186 yards. Ricardo Louis’ 5 catches for 114 yards were the difference as seen above on 3rd down. In all, Auburn ran 48 plays good for 297 first half yards. It also dominated time of possession by holding onto the football for 17:06 while converting 8/11 on 3rd down and going 4-4 in the Red-zone.
Unimaginably, with 9:11 left in the first half, Auburn had already ran 23 plays inside Kentucky territory. The Cats were fortunate to return to the locker room only down 23-10. In its final series of the half, a wide open receiver caught the football but slightly out of bounds. Auburn finished the half with an opportunistic and unexpected three additional points.
Summarizing, credit Gus Malzahn for a creative and efficient game plan. He passed when UK was thinking run, and ran when the Cats expected pass.
FIRST HALF OBSERVATIONS: Kentucky’s missed opportunities
— Cats continued its early game trend with an easy pitch and catch from Patrick Towles to Dorian Baker. Boom Williams later took a pitch out and dashed down the sideline for sixty yards. The play developed by Williams eluding Cassanova McKinzey then exploding past down-field blocks by Kyle Meadows and Dorian Baker. Boom was rewarded with a two yard touchdown run.
— Kentucky’s next two offensive series were telling and provided an unfortunate and premature game summary. Not so much in individual results, but in totality. Boom Williams ran a perfect wheel route, (initial move to sideline then turn vertical) the pass was on target, but Boom tripped before he could make the catch. Missed opportunity. On the next play, Jeff Badet either didn’t settle into a void in the AU defense or Towles’ pass was behind and high. Incomplete 3rd down pass. UK was forced to punt. Doesn’t stop here. Landon Foster’s punt was short, toward the sideline and with very little hang time. Auburn started its drive on its own 45-yard line. Two inconsistencies reared its ugly head as a sign of things to come: missed opportunities in the passing game and abysmal punt/kicks. Can’t win that way. UK didn’t.
— Next series started with a short gain followed by a Cole Mosier false start. Walk-on and 3rd down specialist Charles Walker extended the drive with a twenty yard reception. Towles then ripped off two, first down plays of 10 or more yards. In the red-zone and on 1st down, Patrick Towles was then intercepted by AU’s Carlton Davis. The play was a double slant with Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson. Towles did face a defender in his face. Garrett Johnson appeared to be more open of the two. Result was Davis out-fought Baker for the football as the Cats squandered an opportunity. 1st down interceptions in the Red-zone will get you beat. It did.
— The rest of the half saw more of the same. Kentucky’s youthful skill players flashed scary ability mixed with a constant threat of inconsistency. Boom Williams dropped a screen pass on 1st and 22 that was followed by a Garrett Johnson 39 yard pass reception. This led to UK’s next trip to the red-zone where on 2nd and 5, Dorian Baker’s fade route was incomplete in what appeared to be an obvious pass interference. No call. Patrick Towles was then sacked on 3rd and goal that was a result of a safety blitz. Normally, a veteran QB should not take a sack in this situation. On this occasion, a sack was the right move as Towles did not have time to react. RBs did not properly execute the blitz pickup and a 2nd red-zone interception would have been too costly of a result.
-With 1:37 left in the first half, the Cats had the football trailing 20-10. UK was in full 2-minute offense mode. A Badet first down completion was followed by a Towles throw away. AU covered UK receivers, defense wins sometimes, football happens. On 3rd down, the Tigers safety blitzed and twisted its defensive linemen that resulted in a sack. Total time off the clock: less than a minute. Bad punt ensued. AU took advantage for a FG. Cannot finish a half giving up cheap points, that will get you beat. It did.
THE SECOND HALF
— UK’s first series of the second half was beautiful and it’s most efficient of 2015. Patrick Towles was in total control with Shannon Dawson dialing up timely counters to Auburn’s schemes. Underclassmen Garrett Johnson, Jeff Badet, Dorian Baker, and Boom Williams all excelled and wowed. Williams finished off the drive with a short touchdown run. Selfishly, what I expected for four quarters was in its initial phases; UK domination.
*Totally off topic, but I hope you understand just how scary this offense will be in 2016.
— The Cats quickly got the football back and continued where it left off. Two consecutive first down throws resulted in 10 plus yards. However an untimely Dorian Baker drop put the offense behind the chains. AU made a 3rd down stop. In the final half, with momentum and field positions in tow, drops will get you beat. It did.
— UK was forced to punt. Foster’s intention was to punt the football toward the 10-yard line to allow the coverage team to cover and down the ball close to the goal line or for the punt to settle inside the 10. Neither happened. The kick had very little hang-time which didn’t allow coverage team time to bat the football down or backwards. The football landed and rolled into the end zone.
— Kentucky’s kicking game was its obvious Achilles’ heel. While watching the game on television, Auburn’s kick off returners caught the low and short kicks before a single blue jersey was within twenty plus yards. Giving elite SEC athletes that type of head start is unfair to the coverage teams. For the night, AU had 6 kickoff returns for 155 yards. UK, 1 for 18. On Thursday, there were so many hidden yards left on the field that the combination of Matlock, Magnum PI, and Sherlock Holmes couldn’t have found them all. That my friends will get you beat. It did.
— As dominant as the Auburn offense was in the first half, DJ Eliot made halftime adjustments to flip the script in the third quarter. The Wildcats forced three consecutive 3-and-outs.
— The first three, second half drives for both Auburn and Kentucky decided the outcome of the football game. While the Cat defense forced three and outs, UK scored a touchdown on its first series, punted on second, but its third was the most damaging.
— After a successful fourth down conversion, UK marched down the field. CJ Conrad got in the act with two catches. Garrett Johnson’s first down catch was negated by an illegal substitution penalty. Instead of 2nd and 4, the Cats faced 2nd and 9. On 3rd and 3, Dorian Baker dropped a sure touchdown pass in the end zone. With all the momentum going in Kentucky’s favor, six points on this play could have been the dagger. Instead, UK settled for a FG. A 23-17 game could have easily been a 24-23 contest with Uncle Mo and the BBN whipped into total frenzy.
— Within this time frame, Auburn managed only twenty yards. Kentucky ran 26 plays to Auburn’s 7. 3rd quarter missed opportunities were too plentiful to overcome. Two minute offense and late half endings were discussed, doubted, and blasted. Reality is, the game should have been blown open during this period. It wasn’t.
— In the second half, Auburn had only one explosion play when Ricardo Louis split the UK safeties for a 34 yard gain. Result was an AU field goal to extend its lead 30-20.
— With 7:49 left in the game, UK offense stalled but benefited from an Auburn pass interference call to move the chains. On 1st down, Boom Williams dropped another pass with plenty of fake grass between him and the end zone. Patrick Towles back shoulder fade completion to Jeff Badet was an NFL throw. Good for 27 yards. With 4:07, Mikel Horton scored on a short run, Cats pulled to within 3, 30-27.
— Opportunities didn’t end there. Kentucky’s defense forced Auburn to punt. NT Matt Elam grew up in this series as he played his best football as a collegiate. Auburn punted, Cats had 8 men on the field. Bullet dodged. Mark Stoops was not convinced that Malzahn wasn’t going to go for it on 4th down. With no timeouts, UK was in a football twilight zone somewhere in between playing defense and punt return. Fortunately, the baffle didn’t hurt but wasn’t a good look.
— With 2:12 remaining in the game, down by 3, Patrick Towles and the offense had an opportunity. Two minute offense started with a Jeff Badet dropped pass followed by a Boom Williams catch. On the play, Dorian Baker was called on a questionable holding call, regardless, UK was going in the wrong direction with the clock running.
— Towles to Badet on the sideline was an NFL throw and perhaps Pat’s best of the night. And there were plenty. Towles to Garrett Johnson was another next level throw. At this point, I could not imagine UK not winning the football game.
— 2nd and 5, Boom Williams draw was the play call. With Boom averaging 7.1 yards per carry, I thought it was a good play. On 3rd down, Towles missed Jeff Badet by inches as he and the Auburn defender battled for the football. On 4th down, Towles sacked. Game over. I was in total disbelief.
— 3rd down call, was it intended to be thrown vertically to Badet or did Pat go through his progressions and determine Jeff as his best option? I don’t know. However, with this offense, it lives by the sword and it dies by the sword. I like the aggressive nature, but it is high risk/reward. 4th down play was ugly from start to finish. Again, what happens after the play is called to the finish has many variables. Reality is, UK was in position to win a game it should have put away fifteen minutes prior. It didn’t. UK is 4-2.
What does all this mean?
The BBN screamed for an offensive coordinator that would take shots downfield. It got one in Shannon Dawson. 497 total yards should be good enough to win. I’ll go further, Dawson dialed up an excellent football game. UK put itself into a first half hole. In the 3rd and 4th quarter, momentum was all Blue and it didn’t take advantage of scoring opportunities. In big time games, big time players make big time plays. This may draw ire, and that’s fine, but I agree with ESPN’s Mack Brown. I liked Shannon Dawson’s aggressive style.
At some point in time, this UK Football program has to pounce on a vulnerable opponent when the gettin’ is good. In the 3rd and early 4th quarter, the gettin’s don’t get much better. The continual thud noise you heard on Monday was the Wildcats kicking themselves for not finishing the deal on Thursday. The SEC is unforgiving, Mississippi State now awaits. The Dogs beat Auburn on the Plains 17-9.
Credit Kentucky’s defense for its second half effort and adjustments. Ricardo Louis’ 34-yard catch was the Tiger’s only big play of the half. Chris Westry is growing up in front of our eyes and is special. Kentucky needs an additional CB to step up, especially with a road trip to Starkville on the horizon. In a game of two halves, Auburn won the first 23-10, UK the second 17-7.
I was too close to this game. Ten days presents way too much time for me to stew over yards per catch and run/pass ratios. I over-analyzed and felt UK was the better team going into kickoff. After watching the game multiple times, I still feel that UK was the better team. However, a team that didn’t make the plays when the stakes were at their highest. Frustrating? Heck yes it is. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.