The State of the Bluegrass: Tigres y Gatos, Part Deux

helmets

Well folks, it appears as if my beloved Kentucky Wildcats will have their most recent must win / statement game / game of the year this weekend when they travel to Columbia, Missouri to take on the Tigers of Mizzou. This comes after a couple heartbreaking losses for the Cats. After a magical, and nearly perfect [damn you Florida] start to the season UK will look to erase the last 2 weeks and get back to their [new] winning ways.

(Photo Credit, Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune)

(Photo Credit, Chris Granger, The Times-Picayune)

 

The first of those losses [Tigers v. Cats Part One], was somewhat of a brutal mauling in the box score, but the game itself wasn’t nearly as bad as the score indicated. The Defense played LSU tough, but the brutality with which LSU traditionally wears teams down, and the absolutely overpowering aura of Death Valley proved too much for this particular Cats team to handle. Thats ok. They’re young. They’re learning. They’re improving. And even the best teams have trouble going down to Death Valley and winning. Better times are on the horizon.

Speaking of which, last weekend’s game against #1 ranked Mississippi State presented just such a reason for optimism and sign of growth. Kentucky lost at home to the Bulldogs 45 – 31 this past Saturday, but showed us just about every positive the Bluegrass State could ask for. The 45 points is veeeery misleading. MSU scored their last 14 points on a 73 yard run by Josh Robinson, and that fluke of all flukes kickoff return for 61 yards. Take those points away and Kentucky only gave up 31 points to Mississippi State, a more than reasonable score considering they’re the #1 team in the country with the (former) Heisman favorite Quarterbacking them (a guy people had been comparing to the lofty likes of Tim Tebow and Cam Newton all season long). Hold a team like that to 31 points and with a little luck (turnovers, big plays, special teams) you have the brewings of an upset.

Now, we all knew getting a win against #1 (even at home where we have been incredibly effective this season) would require a lot of help in the way of luck. We needed mistakes by MSU players and coaches, turnovers, and big plays to turn our way while limiting our mistakes to zero and keeping the thing close all day. We got some, but not all, of the necessary ingredients for an upset on Saturday. Dan Mullen made one of his patented bone headed moves, going for it on 4th and 10 to start the 4th quarter instead of punting and pining the Cats deep, giving Kentucky a chance to tie the game immediately after the Kentucky offense had thrown together an absolutely stellar TD pass from Patrick Towles to Javess Blue cut the lead to 7 late in the 3rd.

The Cats, however, didn’t capitalize on that drive. Instead they went 3 and out and punted the ball right back to MSU with the score still 31-24 Bulldogs. So we weren’t able to capitalize on the big MSU mental mistake we were hoping for.

Moreover, we didn’t quite get the MSU mistakes on the field we needed either. Generally to pull an upset you need a couple turnovers. Well, in addition to forcing tons of 3 and outs, and being absolute beasts on 3rd down, our defense forced 4 fumbles out of Mississippi State. Yet somehow we couldn’t recover a single one of them. That’s not bad coaching or bad playing, just bad luck. Fumble recoveries are exactly the kind of luck we needed that day and just couldn’t get. Also, the 1 pick we managed came too late in the first half to really swing the game.

Furthermore, we did not play mistake free like we needed to. We had 4 fumbles of our own and lost 1 of them deep in our own territory, setting up an early MSU score that put the Cats on their heels for the rest of the game. If it weren’t for that play the whole game could have been a whole lot tighter all the way through.

While we may not have gotten the luck we needed, and may not have played as mistake free as we needed to, however, we certainly did manage to do a ton of damage to Dak Prescott’s Heisman campaign in my opinion. The only problem was that we made his teammate, Running Back Josh Robinson, look like a Heisman candidate in his own right. Note exhibit A, B, C, and Z:

That was 6 broken tackles if you’re keeping score at home, at it wasn’t until the 7th AND 8th guys hit him together that he was brought down. Also, there was this.

And that, my friends, is perhaps Kentucky’s biggest, [and in my opinion their only major] flaw. Run defense. All three of Kentucky’s losses this year have come in large part at the hands of dominant rushing attacks. Matt Jones rushed for 156 yards and a TD in the Florida game, and as a team Florida had 237 yards on the ground. LSU rushed for a combined 303 yards and 3 rushing TDs against us. And Robinson just burned us for 198 and 2 TDs, while as a team MSU poured on 326 yards and 4 rushing TDs. Hell, even their premier win of the year vs. South Carolina featured a stellar rushing performance by Mike Davis who ran for 183 yards and 3 TDs. Plain and simple this particular Kentucky team stops the run about as well as Wonder Bread stops an atomic bomb…

If you’re wondering, no… the Wonder Bread did not survive the test…

crying bread

The problem is tackling. Kentucky football was blessed with 3 consecutive iterations of spectacular interior linebackers. It started with Wesley Woodyard (2x First Team All SEC). Moved on to Danny Trevathon (1 First Team All SEC and 1 Second Team All SEC). And ended last year with Avery Williamson (1 Second Team All SEC). All three of these guys are now starting in the NFL, and Woodyard was the Defensive captain of the Super Bowl runner up Denver Broncos last year. Soooo its fair to say we have been slightly spoiled at the position.

Unfortunately for Kentucky fans, all three of their Holy Trinity of Inside Linebackers have moved on to the NFL, and while I'm certainly happy for them, I would certainly love to see any of them in the Kentucky Blue again.

Unfortunately for Kentucky fans, all three of their Holy Trinity of Inside Linebackers have moved on to the NFL, and while I’m certainly happy for them, I would certainly love to see any of them in the Kentucky Blue again.

I mentioned in my preseason article how much this team would miss Williamson, the most recent of these three All-SEC linebackers to graduate. He covered up innumerable mistakes and mismatches for Kentucky during his time in Blue, and while I certainly had hoped that the defense could make up for his departure with growth elsewhere, I was skeptical.

(Photo Credit, David Stephenson, Lexington Herald-Leader)

(Photo Credit, David Stephenson, Lexington Herald-Leader)

Now, part of my hopes came true. This Kentucky defense is definitely better than any defense Williamson was ever a part of. However, the linebacking corps is undoubtedly worse with his departure. There appears to be a plauge of ‘arm tacklers’ on this team. Guys try to tackle opposing running backs with a single arm, or simply by hitting them without wrapping them up and dragging them to the ground. They don’t finish the play and bring the guy to the ground. This kind of thing might work for the best of the best, but that is not what we have at Kentucky. What we have are GOOD players. Not great but good. And coaches who put those players in positions to make plays and stop running backs. Unfortunately, their weak tackling and poor technique are hopelessly easy for opposing running backs to break, as Robinson demonstrated by breaking 6 tackles on a single run this weekend. Let’s just show you once more to illustrate the point.

Yeeeeesh.

Now, thats not to say that our defenders can’t stop the run. Our secondary is much improved, and can make tackles when called upon, but if an opposing running back has broken into your secondary, the battle is already lost. You need to stop them at the 2nd level, aka the linebackers, as a worst case scenario, and never want to be stopping them at the 3rd level (your secondary). So lets ignore that for a second. Ideally you’d LIKE to stop them right at the line of scrimmage, at the defensive line. Our D Line does an excellent job at this. That is where the elite players of this unit are located. Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith and beasts, and while their primary roles are to be pass rushers, they know how to wrap up their man and bring him down if the opposing team decides to rush to the edge. They’re quick enough to get to their man and strong enough to bring him down. Where Kentucky struggles, however, is when opponents run up the middle and overpower us.

Matt Elam is a truly elite run stopper at Nose Tackle. The man is an absolute wooly mammoth out there.

I can’t even figure out how guys ever get around him. Unfortunately for UK, however, the coaching staff hasn’t made him an every down player yet. Perhaps because he hasn’t developed the requisite stamina to be an every down, or near every down player. Perhaps because they fear his youth will make him prone to mistakes. Or perhaps they simlply like keeping him fresh for crucial 3rd downs etc. The fact of the matter he isn’t and every down guy. Our other DTs are very very good, but not elite, so of course occasionally a RB breaks through them. This is just going to happen more often than not in the game of football when you have 5 offensive linemen and a Tight End blocking against 4 defensive linemen. The battle is inherently out of the defense’s favor.

Josh Forrest. A Kentucky native and next man up in UK's line of Inside Linebackers. (Photo Credit @UKFootball Twitter account)

Josh Forrest. A Kentucky native and next man up in UK’s line of Inside Linebackers. (Photo Credit @UKFootball Twitter account)

That’s where your Middle linebacker needs to step up and make the play. Thats what we had with Woodyard, Trevathan, and Williamson. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to muster these stops consistently with this year’s team. Now don’t get me wrong. Josh Forrest  is undoubtedly a good player. And his interceptions are certainly a sight for sore eyes (2 this year when we, as a team, only had 2 all last year). Moreover, he certainly has a ton of tackles so far this year (65), but unfortunately that doesn’t tell the whole story. His technique needs work, and he could probably stand to get a little stronger so he wouldn’t struggle so much bringing down the Aurochs and Buffalo most SEC teams utilize as running backs. He already has most of the physical tools for him to be the next elite UK Middle Linebacker. He just needs to work on his technique and put everything together yet. That’s when the 300 yard rushing games stop. A day that can’t come soon enough.

Hopefully Forrest improves over the next few games (as a crucial stretch of win-able road games is now in front of Kentucky with Mizzou, Tennessee, and Louisville… Georgia… mmm… maybe not so much… but 3/4 ain’t bad!) and hopefully he and current freshmen inside linebackers Nico Firios and Dorian Hendrix can stabilize the position for years to come. For the time being, however, lets look at the positives! This Kentucky team, flaws and all, just took the #1 team in the country to the wire. With what little luck Kentucky had it is amazing how close they managed to make this game. Pat Towles had by far the best game of his career. Senior receivers Javess Blue (still the best name of any Kentucky player ever) and Demarco Robinson were all over the field making spectacular plays. The defense was stout and solid. And we didn’t even have our best offensive weapon, freshman running back Stanley “Boom” Williams, on the field!

A little reminder for those who forgot.

And while Blue’s TD was indeed impressive, and MSU’s Josh Robinson was incredibly good all day, let’s not forget Kentucky’s own Robinson. Mr. Demarco Robinson had a nifty touchdown of his own.

Those feet!! Those magical feet!!! How did they stay inbounds!!??

Anyway, we gave MSU all they could handle. And as an aside, yes the onside kick was the right call. That touchdown was a freak occurrence. With the penalty on the previous PAT an onside kick risks giving the ball to MSU on the 35 yard line, but a kick out of the endzone would have put them at the 25 yard line anyway. 10 yards is more than worth the risk of getting the ball. Yes, angry Kentucky fans EVEN WITH TWO TIMEOUTS left. With the way Josh Robinson was running the ball you probably only have a 15% chance of getting the ball back with enough time left on the clock to score, and only a 5% chance of actually scoring. So yes, the risk of the onside kick was the correct call. And this game should only have been a 7 point loss… 10 points worst case scenario. Again, that was a freak play. Ok, glad we put that one to rest… hope you got all your anger out.

Here, have some Wonder Bread. Freshly toasted.

BUT ANYWAY to push things in a more positive direction, I say all this to talk about why Kentucky’s next game is their biggest big game of the year of the century yet! Kentucky plays Mizzou this weekend as they take their 3rd shot at clinching bowl eligibility. Now, while Kentucky has gone winless on the road thus far this season, Columbia is not exactly the same kind of road environment as The Swamp and Death Valley. In fact, Mizzou has been garbage in their last 3 home appearances this year. Consider the evidence:

Last week Mizzou played Vanderbilt (far and away the worst team in the SEC this year) at home and barely snuck out a 24-14 win. [That snapped a 2 game home losing streak by the way.] Now, they did win this game so you have to give them credit there, but if Vandy can play Missouri that tight at home, Why Not Kentucky? (see what I did there Mark Stoops?)

4DE7D1CDCF1137884610446106624_3.0.1.15813644906740107449.mp4

Three weeks ago, October 11th, they played a Georgia team reeling from recently losing Heisman candidate Running Back Todd Gurley to suspension and were SHUT OUT! AT HOME! BY A TEAM MISSING THEIR BEST PLAYER! Now, Georgia can do that to a lot of folks. They’re that good. But shutout? C’mon. UK may have gotten bloodied in Baton Rouge, but we didn’t get shut out… and that was a road game… not at home… egads Mizzou…

Now here is the real beauty. Saturday, September 20th. Mizzou welcomed the Indiana Hoosiers Football Team to town. The same Hoosiers team that is 10-26 combined the last three seasons. The same Indiana that has finished last or second to last in the Big 10 the last 6 years running. The same Indiana team which, even with their big road upset of Mizzou has only been able to muster a 3-4 record this season. Their other 2 wins on the season? Those came against Indiana State (an FCS school…) and North Texas (2-6 on the year and the worst team in Conference USA…) Not exactly the same kind of competition as Kentucky. Now sure, Indiana plays some fun, high tempo offense this year. They try to make every game a shootout and hope they can outscore their opponent, defenses be damned. But still, how the hell did you lose to Indiana, Mizzou?? If the hapless Hoosiers can do it, Kentucky surely can too.

This Kentucky team isn’t perfect. They’re also not as good as some of the crazies would have had you believe after that 5-1 start (win the SEC East? Next year? Maybe. This year? Let’s just get to a bowl game please). The run defense is a flaw, and the offense doesn’t always click on all cylinders. Next week, however, there’s no reason to think this UK team can’t grab its first road win of the year. The offense looks the best it has all year, and can only get better once Boom gets back in the lineup. Matt Elam and our young Secondary get better with every game we play. And Missouri has proven that they are anything but intimidating at home. These are not the Bayou Bengals of LSU,  but perhaps something more akin to Hello Kitty in Yellow and Black. So bring on your super scarey “Stripe Out” Mizzou, cuz I’m about ready for the Wildcats to avenge those stupid T-Shirts you made… Right about meow motherfuckers… Go Cats.

mizzout

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