SHANE SHACKLEFORD: Football Wildcats Survive Saturday's Storm Against Eastern Michigan
Little tidbit about me.
If I hadn’t become a teacher and a coach or even a sports columnist, I wanted to be a storm chaser.
Liz says I’m crazy, but I find storms fascinating. Blizzards, tornadoes, thunderstorms, you name it. Their power is amazing. But storms are also made up of many different components that come together at the right time and the right place to become a storm.
I feel like this is an accurate analogy to discuss Kentucky’s performance last Saturday against Eastern Michigan.
It should be noted first and foremost that the Wildcats pulled out a 24-20 victory over the Eagles to push UK’s record to 4-1. That’s a very good thing. It could be much worse (looking at you, Tennessee and LSU.)
But the performance left a lot to be desired in areas. I think three components came together to create a somewhat dismal performance for Big Blue, much like what happens to create a storm. Examine:
The post-Florida letdown. It was coming. Everyone saw it coming. Kentucky poured their heart and soul into that heartbreaker last Saturday night at Kroger Field, fans included. I tend to think the Cats were a little battered psychologically; understandably so. But if UK wins, the Florida letdown becomes the Florida stupor. So with that said, it’s very difficult to avoid any type of mental lapse Saturday.
The MAC stigma. When will fans and teams learn this simple concept: Mid American Conference football teams are tough minded, talented, and will not beat themselves. Sure, three years ago Eastern Michigan won a grand total of two games and a single game. But a funny thing happened on the way to the matchup at the Big Supermarket. EMU won seven games and played in the Bahamas Bowl last year, so this bunch isn’t the sad sacks they were in previous years. They’ve followed the previously stated MAC formula of success to become a very solid outfit. More of that to come…
The Cats offensive line play. In a word, abysmal. UK’s O-line is a shell of its 2016 self. They allowed Stephen Johnson to be sacked 5times (and hit several other times) and 10 tackles for loss. Not against South Carolina. Not against Florida. Eastern Michigan. UK made rush end Jeremiah Harris looked like Von Miller off the edge. Miller torched the Cats line for 3.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, and a pass breakup. Ouch.
With that in mind, let’s grade UK's overall performance Saturday.
Offense: C-. Easily the poorest overall offensive performance of the year, aided by easily the poorest offensive line performance of the year. It’s hard to have a run game, a pass game, or any continuity when you give up 5 sacks and 3 quarterback hurries. The most discouraging part of the line play is the line was beaten man on man, not by trickery. I will say Garrett “Juice” Johnson played really well on the edge in the screen game. KySportsStyle.com Magazine's Joe Cox made me aware that Juice has become the 4th leading receiver in Kentucky history. I bet you didn’t realize it either. The Cats had 223 yards total for the game, with a paltry 53 yards rushing, aided by a minus 34-yard mark created by Stephen Johnson’s 5 sacks. Johnson wasn’t bad passing though, going 18-27 for 175 yards and 2 TD’s. Power back Benny Snell had 21 carries for 75 yards and a clinching TD in the 4th quarter. Overall though, rough.
Defense: A. Very solid performance by the Kentucky defense. The Cats held the Eagles to 13 yards rushing, sacked EMU QB Brogan Roback 5 times, forced 3 turnovers, created 3 QB hurries, had 7 tackles for loss, and had two interceptions by Mike Edwards and Kendall Randolph. DE’s Josh Allen led the defense with 1.5 sacks and 7 tackles. Dominating performance all around. If the defense doesn’t show up, this game goes south in a hurry.
Special Teams: A. I’ll be generous with this mark because our special teams have been, well, special all year. Yes, Austin MacGinnis missed 2 field goals. But heck they were from 53 yards in a swirling Lexington wind after the Cats were anemic on offense. So I’m going to give him a mulligan (or two.) Punter Matthew Panton was his usual spectacular self with 8 punts averaging 45.5 per kick, including a 71-yarder. The Cats also blocked a punt and forced a fumble on punt coverage. Coordinator Dean Hood is earning his check!
Next up, the Missouri Tigers come to Lexington for a Homecoming tilt. Mizzou has struggled out of the gate going 1-3 (0-2 SEC). The offense has been sporadic at times, but the defense has been awful, surrendering 43, 31, 35, and 53 points so far. The Cats have a real opportunity to be 5-1 going into their bye week. Again, this is predicated on improving their offensive line play. I think they will. They survived that storm; they’ll survive more.
Shane Shackleford is a retired teacher/coach living in Speedwell, Tenn. You can contact Shane via e-mail at email@example.com, Facebook @ShaneShackleford, or Twitter @ shack_daddy_1.