Embarrassing. Disheartening. Doubt inducing. Shall I go on? On Saturday, Tennessee traveled north of Jellico Mountain and flexed its collective SEC East muscles in Commonwealth Stadium. Trying to find positives would be a futile attempt of analyzation.
Numbers lied going into the game, and continued to do so after the 52-21 shellacking. Going into Saturday, Kentucky and Tennessee were statistically similar in many categories; however, in regards of talent and tangible effort — toughness, competitiveness, and nastiness — UT dominated the Wildcats. Truth is, UK was fortunate to walk out of CWS by only losing by 31.
Missed tackles, dropped passes, domination of the lines of scrimmage, and penalties all plagued the Cats’ futile attempt to turn a route into a competitive football game.
Misleading game statistics
- First downs: UT 21, UK 18
- Passing yards: UT 233, UK 184
- Time of possession: UT 29:43, UK 30:17
- 4th down conversions: UT 2/2, UK 2/3
- Fumbles/Lost: UT 3-1, UK 1-1
Game deciding statistics
- Total offensive plays/yards: UT 69-482, UK 65-349
- Punt return yards: UT 2-99 yards 1 TD, UK 3-45 yards
- Kickoff returns: UT 1-100 yards 1 TD, UK 3-45
- Penalties: UT 6-65 yards, UK 9-93
- Third down conversions: UT 8/15, UK 2/13
— Of Kentucky’s 9 penalties for 93 yards, many came on plays in which UK had offensive success. The majority were called against the offensive line. Holding was the flag du jour.
— Tennessee physically and athletically controlled both lines of scrimmage. Personnel mismatches resulted in offensive negative plays, quarterback sacks/hurries, and a plethora of 2nd and 10s. Conversely, Tennessee averaged 5.7 yards per rush.
— On average, and this is an estimate without watching the game with a remote control, Patrick Towles couldn’t have averaged more than 1.5 seconds prior to engaging Tennessee pass rushers.
Following CJ Johnson’s scoop and score, QB Joshua Dobbs avoided would be tacklers and scored from 28 yards out. Kentucky then executed its only sustained offensive drive and after being out-everything, took a 14-10 lead. One play later, Dobbs’ 75-yard touchdown pass to Malone put the Volunteers ahead to stay. A 17-14 lead turned into an unsurmountable 24-14 margin when the Tennessee quarterback scored on a 1-yard run 40 seconds prior to halftime.
In the third quarter, Tennessee scored 14 points within 42 seconds. 38-14 Vols. Cats did cut the lead to 38-21, and a glimpse of hope for a 2014 South Carolina type of 4th quarter comeback surfaced. But UK’s Saturday night opponent wasn’t an end-of-the-line Spurrier team. Seconds after the Garrett Johnson 39-yard touchdown reception, SEC leading kick returner Evan Berry sprinted through, past, and around would be tacklers for a 100-yard special team’s score. Three minutes later, Cam Sutton had a rinse-and-repeat 84-yard punt return for six points. The bleeding had stopped as Butch Jones took his foot off the gas. Final score was mercifully Tennessee 52, Kentucky 21. It could have been much, much worse.
Mandatory “there were positives”
— RB Mikel Horton played his best game as a Wildcat. 14 rushes for 110 tough yards. In terms of determination, Horton answered the bell.
— True freshman CB Derrick Baity competed and experienced situational success against Tennessee receivers. He is the answer opposite Westry. Two true freshmen CBs can be a dangerous combination. But after three years of the alternative, jeopardies do not outweigh the consistent lack of production.
— Strong safety Marcus McWilson also played his best game of his three year career. Marcus caused the fumble that Johnson scooped and scored. During the play, McWilson also lead with a TD securing block.
— Freshman safety Mike Edwards’ 8 tackles including 1 tackle for loss were indications of his new presence in the UK secondary. A place that now seems to be a permanent fixture.
The question remains, where does Kentucky go from here?
— I honestly can’t tell you. Fan frustration is at a season high. Trust me, I read and hear many of them, and sincerely understand. On yet another night with a national television audience in tow, Kentucky was decisively outplayed, coached, schemed, skilled, and executed.
— Changes are necessary. For starters, it’s time for a wholesale youth movement in the secondary. Many of the loyal BBN would rather see a freshman make rookie mistakes than more of the three year same.
— UK’s offensive line must find, coach up, and develop a five-some that can protect and open running lanes. Tennessee’s defense was good. So are Georgia’s, Vanderbilt’s and Louisville’s. It doesn’t get easier. An argument can be made that the prior three mentioned have just as good or better defenses than UT.
— Just as the OL needs to protect, a resemblance of pass rush has to commence. Beginning with EKU and progressing through Saturday, opposing quarterbacks are luxuriously having time to go through two, three, and four targets in their progression.
— Tackling must improve. Once steady seniors AJ Stamps and Ryan Flannigan missed key tackles that extended drives and or resulted in UT touchdowns. Again, youth movement is taking place at safety, but with a razor thin linebacker corps, Flannigan simply has to step up his game. Opposing offenses are game planning to chip blockers and focus on blocking Josh Forrest. With the 2014 LB class missing in action and Courtney Love ineligibility, this is the most difficult challenge to overcome.
— Dropped passes. Enough is enough. Realizing that quarterbacks take the brunt of the blame and rightly so, but offense is an eleven-man operation. If “fill in the name QB” cannot find rhythm or sustain confidence while facing immediate pass rush and enduring an overabundance of dropped passes, through the air success is virtually impossible.
— Quarterback play isn’t untouchable. Patrick has to clean up interceptions and inconsistencies. No way around it. An INT on a screen play during a combustible period of the game was unacceptable. But versus Tennessee, no other option was present. Drew Barker’s injury prevented the freshman from replacing Patrick Towles and Reece Phillips is coming off an Achilles injury.
— For the latter part of the season, special team errors have been teetering on detonation. Against Tennessee, 14 points were the result. Is it the fault of a nameless special team’s coordinator? Not necessarily yes or no. Both scores resulted from ineffective tackling and improper pursuit angles.
— Cheap scores have to be limited or even better, eliminated. Examples: kickoff return for TD, punt return for TD, one play drive that resulted in a pass 75 yard touchdown, a 1st down 63 yard run to the one inch line that led to a TD, and a shortened field score due to interception equaled 35 points. The aforementioned point total contributed to 67% of Tennessee’s final tally.
— Strange to say in week 8, but open every position up for competition. Actuality doesn’t meet knee jerk reaction, but perhaps the fear of the bench would increase to competitiveness on game day. The BBN doesn’t expect to win every game. We are self-aware. However, we do want to see a scrappy team that fights back.
Mark Stoops is the right coach at the right time. However, results have to meet promise. Initially and undeniably, Stoops was placed behind the 8 ball. But in year three, getting whooped by Tennessee at home was not a good look. I highly respect Stoops. I believe UK will become bowl eligible. But, his team is running out of games to stake its claim for postseason play.
Starting with the loss to Auburn followed by the Starkville nightmare to Saturday’s disaster, I have to admit that worry has set in. Too many fundamental issues are on weekly display. Talent mismatches are one thing, but for the second straight week Kentucky was out-toughed.
The UK team that beat Carolina and Mizzou as well as giving Florida all it wanted is not the same team that we’ve watched against EKU, Auburn, Miss State and Tennessee. Trajectory has gone in the wrong direction. The prior team would be given a chance to travel to Athens and catch a dejected and apparently unraveling Georgia team off guard. But the recent Cats, not so much. Not yet. Trust must be re-earned.
As the season progresses, lack of across the board SEC talent and depth are rearing their ugly heads. Depth is expected, injuries are a part of the game. But team leaders need to station themselves in front of a mirror for a sincere soul-searching session. That also includes coaches. Saturday was an all-systems failure. No part of the Kentucky Football program is exempt from scrutiny.
Players-only meetings are a waste of time. Excuses are waning. This post was painstaking to write. I can’t begin to describe the blueness of my blood. Losses hurt me to the core. But objectivity is paramount with a head scratching fan base is looking for answers. It’s time for a change. What those changes entail are Mark Stoops’ decisions to make. For the past 14 days, status quo is not working.