By Joe Cox
It’s an off week this week for UK football, which is probably a good thing. It means that instead of worrying about how UK can salvage a bowl bid by beating the Louisville Cardinals, we’ve got time for a question. It’s a doozy.
What is this UK football team? This isn’t a rhetorical question. It’s a matter of identity. Against Ohio and Vandy, it was a team that ground out yardage and leaned on a stout defense. Against Florida and Mississippi State, it sent receivers all over the field and aggressively attacked defenses with a vertical passing game. Against South Carolina, it was a power running team with Jojo Kemp in the Wildcat formation. But this is the thing. When adversity has knocked on UK’s door, there hasn’t been an answer. Defense? Nope, missing in action in giving up 113 to UGA and UT the last two weeks. Offense? Nope, put up ten points at Missouri, squandering a perfectly good defensive game. Special teams? Not a chance. Running game? Wisconsin back Melvin Gordon had more yards on Saturday than any of the ‘Cats’ running backs have for the entire season. Passing game? When Towles isn’t getting crushed, he’s missing throws or watching receivers drop them.
So what is this team? Much of this has to go at the feet of Neal Brown, the offensive wunderkind who in 23 games has yet to establish any kind of cohesive offensive system. Why can’t he pick a feature running back and get him 15-20 carries per game? Why does the offense NEVER look at the middle of the field? How can receivers like Garrett Johnson and Blake Bone have big games, but then virtually disappear for the rest of the season? Why did the Wildcat work well once (Vandy) and brilliantly once (South Carolina) and not work whatsoever thereafter?
What will Stoops and D.J. Elliott need for the defense to stop looking like an FCS team? Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree aren’t exactly chopped liver on the defensive line. A.J. Stamps has SEC level athleticism. All Josh Forrest does is tackle anybody who comes near him. And yet this team can’t get a defensive stop if its collective lives depended on it.
My problem with this team isn’t the 5-6 record. It isn’t the losses. It’s the fact that I still have no idea, after 11 games this season and 23 games total, what this team is about under Mark Stoops. I’m okay with 5-7. I’m not really okay with the fact that we’re probably sixty minutes of bad football away from entering Year 3 of the Stoops era with very little idea of what this team is doing—other than trying to bring better players to the table.
I would trade a hard-fought, well-played loss to Louisville for a lucky, identity-less victory. I hope over this week, UK can figure out what this program is about—and how to bring that onto the field next Saturday at Louisville. If they can, they just might win the game. If they can’t, I’m wondering if the extension for Stoops wasn’t step one down a long path to no place in particular.
All Austin MacGinnis has done is hit the longest field goal in school history, tie for second most field goals in a single season, and win national honors for his kicking. The first two games were rough, but since that time, Austin has been near automatic. He needs two field goals to tie Joey Worley for the UK single season record. His three 50-plus yard field goals makes him only the third UK kicker to hit three such kicks in a season (Doug Pelfrey hit four once, and Joe Bryant is the only other kicker in the group). If he plays for four years, MacGinnis will probably destroy the UK kicking record book. So there is that to look forward to.
Javess Blue played a big game when his teammates didn’t. He had 131 of UK’s 168 passing yards and deserved better from the rest of his offensive teammates.
Josh Forrest had 20 tackles, and Bud Dupree added 14 more, with a sack for good measure. How bad would this slaughter have been without those two? Perish the thought.
Offensive line was pitiful again. 2.8 yards per carry, five sacks of Patrick Towles. I think offensive line has eclipsed linebacker in terms of UK’s biggest future ned.
Running back tag team continues to not work. No UK back had more than six carries. For that matter, for the entire season, UK has managed to get any running back more than fifteen carries ONE time—Jojo Kemp against South Carolina. By comparison, UT decided early in the season that Jalen Hurd was their feature back… and while he hasn’t always been brilliant, then keep feeding him the ball. His carry totals by game are: 11, 23, 14, 24, 10, 2 (FCS opponent), 13, 16, 21, 24. In three of the four games when UT handed Hurd the ball 20 times, he ran for 100 yards. For what it’s worth, UT’s second string back has 60 carries on the year—which is about as many as any one of UK’s backs. I know they like having four backs. But pick a starter and a second back. Give the starter the ball 15-20 times per game and the second back 6-7 times per game. It’s not rocket science. The rest of the SEC seems to understand it.
Tackling, tackling, tackling. What else can I say?
WHERE ARE WE—SEC POWER RANKINGS
1. Alabama (9-1) Hope you didn’t write them off.
2. Mississippi State (9-1) Played better than I expected vs. Bama. If they win out, they’re in the Final Four of football.
3. Ole Miss (8-2) They are where they want to be. Win the Egg Bowl and replace State in the Final Four.
4. Georgia (8-2) Without Gurley, they’re probably about the #8 best team. But they’ll get a chance at the SEC title if Mizzou stumbles, which is no small thing.
5. Missouri (8-2) I don’t know how they do it, but they do it.
6. Auburn (7-3) That game against Alabama is looking really unlikely about now.
7. LSU (7-4) What a weird team. Middle of the pack is perfect. Could win their remaining game and a bowl or could go 7-6. Neither would surprise.
8. Texas A&M (7-4) Strange year that will end up about where expected, just didn’t have any real flow to it.
9. Arkansas (5-5) Finally won an SEC game, God bless them. May still go 5-7.
10. Tennessee (5-5) Playing much better, but the loss of A.J. Johnson makes 6-6 a real likelihood.
11. South Carolina (5-5) Yuck.
12. Florida (5-4) Yuck, but they did dump Muschamp. Free at last.
13. Kentucky (5-6) Yuck. One more chance to salvage or crash and burn.
14. Vanderbilt (3-7) Is Vanderbilt still in the league?
WHERE ARE WE GOING
To rest up and root for the basketball team.
MY COMPLETELY CLUELESS SEC PREDICTIONS
A rough 3-3 week dropped me to 66-16. At least I had ‘Bama, like everybody else did. On the downside, why did I THINK LSU could score points?
Week 13 Predictions:
Florida 31, EKU 14
Georgia 52, Charleston Southern 17
South Carolina 41, South Alabama 20
Ole Miss 38, Arkansas 24
Alabama 55, Western Carolina 3
Auburn 52, Sanford 6
Missouri 29, Tennessee 28
Mississippi State 45, Vanderbilt 7
Joe Cox is contributing editor for Kysportsstyle360.com. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written three books involving UK sports, 100 Things Wildcats Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Fightin’ Words: Kentucky vs. Louisville (both with Ryan Clark), and Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting (with Alan Sullivan). Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.