OK, I have watched the game on replay (half last night, the second half this morning on ESPN360.com, and I must say I feel a lot better about some things and a lot worse about others.
First of all, MTSU is for real. They have tremendous speed at their skill positions, and I am talking SEC speed. What they do not have is SEC size, and even though the backs and receivers were blazingly fast, they showed very litte ability to get yards after contact. That was a big factor in the game last night.
Watching MTSU, I was transported back in time to the Hal Mumme years at Kentucky. The Spread Option that MTSU uses is eerily similar to Mumme's "Air Raid" variation on the Spread Option, and Joe Craddock is a poor man's version of Tim Couch. Craddock is a very good quarterback, and the SO allows him to minimize his main deficiency, that of height. He sets up mostly in the gun, and that allows him a better view of the field than an offense which forces you to do a drop. Mumme used many more "tricky" type plays than Rick Stockstill's offense. Stockstill's is very much a vanilla SO type offense with very few unusual formations, no "shuffle passes" and fewer bubble screens than we usually see in that offense. Stockstill also sets up with a two-back backfield, which Mumme did not do very often.
Still, this game reminded me of how potent the SO can be with an accurate passer at the helm. The whole purpose, of course, is to create bubbles of "space" around the receivers. When you have outstanding athletes and speed like MTSU, those little bubbles often wind up being the step the receivers need to defeat a linebacker and break a big gain. That's exactly what happened when MTSU scored its first touchdown.
Fortunately for UK, the offensive line also reminded me very much of the lines under Mumme -- competent only in giving a quarterback just a few seconds to get away a pass to the speedy backs and receivers. The MTSU offensive line was totally dominated by the Kentucky front the entire game, and MTSU's running game was unable to do anything against the UK front seven. That's what ultimately enabled UK to win the game.
What I liked:
- Mike Hartline is becoming a solid quarterback -- Listening to the game, I thought Hartline was doing a below average job. But after watching the game, I know where the blame truly belongs -- to the offensive line and receivers. More on that later.
I forgive Hartline the fumble, but that's the second time he has just dropped the ball in the middle of his passing motion, unpressured. I used to be a quarterback in high school, and I have no idea how that happens.
- Can we kick, or can't we? For the purposes of this bullet point, I will leave aside the field goal unit. Our kicking teams executed almost flawlessly in every respect. They covered well, they pinned the Blue Raiders deep, they returned the football well. It was awesome, something coaches dream of. Special teams playing like that can be a weapon, and they truly were last night.
- The running backs ran hard. Unfortunately, the offensive line had another very poor game. More on that later.
- T.C. Drake -- Drake had a breakout game, changing the game just like Jacob Tamme used to do. Drake gets my game ball on offense. Just impressive.
- The defensive line and linebackers -- Micah Johnson was on his way to a Woowardesque game when he got injured, but Braxton Kelley, Johnny Williams, Sam Maxwell and Michael Schwindel stepped up and played very well in his absence. The D-line completely dominated MTSU on nearly every snap. The defensive front seven gets my game ball on defense.
- The coaching -- The coaches made several adjustments at halftime which changed the game dramatically in favor of UK, especially going back to a four-man front with a nickel package in the backfield for most plays, and taking the routes that the Blue Raiders were giving us on offense.
- The low number of penalties. The tougher the comp gets, though, the more of those you will see.
What I did not like:
- The offensive line -- The O-line played a very weak game except in pass protection. The backs were on their own, getting very few good running holes to hit. Not only that, they failed to fire completely on every screen play -- several of those should have gone for big yardage, but the line did not maintain their blocks and simply took plays off.
- The wide receivers -- Dicky Lyons made more good plays than bad, but he still dropped passes he should have caught. But most of my criticism will be directed at Kyrus Lanxter. This young man should not be dropping so many of these passes. He made Hartline sound like a freshman on the radio, but the tape told a different tale. Lanxter was many times breaking off routes, in the wrong pattern, or failing to make a block. Were Randall Cobb available, I expect Lanxter would have seen a lot of time on the bench.
- The injuries -- No need to expound on that. Randall Cobb, Ricky Lumpkin and Micah Johnson all with ankle sprains, a couple of which are "high" ankle sprains. Not sure of their prognosis yet.
- Lones Seiber -- I hate to rag on a kicker. That is one tough job, and a bad day can be so devastating because you are out there on an island. But Seiber played so badly that he almost cost us the game. That last play was not his fault, the line failed to block properly, leading to the blocked field goal. I leave Brooks and Phillips to deal with him, but Seiber is one of UK's greatest weaknesses at this point in the season.
Kentucky utterly dominated the entire second half on both sides of the football, yet they failed to do what you must do -- put points on the board. The only reason the game was not over early in the fourth was because our O-line, receivers and kicker were playing so badly that UK couldn't score. Hartline's teammates let him down -- big time. I expect that Phillips and Brooks will remind them of that every single day for the next two weeks.
Kentucky was very fortunate to survive the final FG unit gaffe, and Robbie McAtee deserves a pat on the back for that great, game-saving tackle. The O-line and receivers should be washing his laundry for a month. Lones Seiber should fan him with a palm leaf and feed him grapes.
But a win is a win. Let's get healthy and move on. 3-0 is the only stat that matters at the moment.