UK vs. NSU: A Big Blue battle at quarterback and a defense that 'rocks the Casbah'

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Coming into the game this week against FCS member Norfolk State, UK had several questions brought on by the ineffective offensive performance versus U of L, most pointedly, the performances of the passing game and offensive line.  The nature of the questions surrounding UK's potential to compete in the SEC, though, are not easily answered by the teams play against an out-manned, lower division football team.  But, several aspects of UK's play Saturday deserve a closer look, and I feel can give us some semblance of an idea of how the team is progressing.

Quarterback play

The emergence of Randall Cobb has certainly made the quarterback question a much more complicated issue.  Mike Hartline, while not playing badly, was shown-up in a big way by the versatile Cobb and his arsenal of weaponry ... until one looks at the turnover column, which reads Hartline - 0, Cobb - 2.  On the other, more positive hand, the 'touchdowns responsible for' column reads Hartline - 0, Cobb - 3.  What is a head coach to do?

It is obvious that Cobb is an exciting, electric, once in a decade type of player, but does he give UK the best chance to win while playing quarterback, or rather, a multitude of offensive positions?  His Saturday stat line is impressive, especially considering he is a true freshman, playing quarterback for the first time at the collegiate level ( he played roughly half of the offensive snaps ): 8 rushes for 56 yards and two touchdowns, while going 6 of 11 for 87 yards and another touchdown through the air, as well as the two aforementioned turnovers ( he actually had another would-be INT dropped just before he threw his pick ).   

But, when evaluating Cobb's performance one has to keep a couple of things in mind:   

  1.  It was Norfolk St. -- The poor Spartans didn't have anyone on their team who could even fathom stopping Cobb.  He athleticism simply overwhelmed the visitors, which will not happen in the SEC.  
  2. NSU was totally unprepared for Cobb -- They did not game plan for him to be playing quarterback in their pre-game preparations.  That's the last time an opponent comes into a game with UK unprepared to deal with Cobb as QB.
  3. He's a true freshman, playing in his second college game -- This is what excites me and hopefully every UK fan.  Regardless of whether Cobb plays QB or becomes a modern day 'Slash,'  he has many great performances in front of him.  He certainly is not going to be mistake-free, but I am sure as he learns the speed of the college game that he will make the proper adjustments.

Whether Cobb remains a viable quarterback alternative is as of yet, unknown.  But, it is hard to deny that the team moved better, and seemed more sharp in their play when he was at the helm.  His decision-making was questionable at times, which is a product of his youth.  Nothing will cure that except experience.

Coach Brooks, when asked about the Cobb/Hartline battle said the following:

"We have two quarterbacks that I think are really good players.  We need both of them to have experience going into SEC play.  I will be very interested to see how they both respond in practice this week."

Brooks is hedging his bets based on two statistics:

  • UK did not run the ball well when Hartline was in the game -- Of the 14 rush attempts by running backs with Hartline at quarterback UK gained 48 yards ( 3.4 yards per carry ).  When Cobb was manning the quarterback spot UK's running backs ran 15 times for 104 yards ( 6.9 yards per carry ).  If one includes Cobb's 16 and 18 yard jaunts, that increases the yards per carry average to 8.1.  NOTE -- I did not include goal-line rush attempts in the above stats, nor did I include Derrick Locke's 64 yard TD late in the game.
  • Cobb's two turnovers -- Although the fumble Cobb lost was not completely his fault, ( he was after-all blindsided ) his 'in the heat of battle' decisions were at times problematic; most apparently on his three ill-advised passes, one of which was picked, one should have been picked, and the other was just pure luck it wasn't picked, as the NSU defender had his head turned as the ball arrived.   

As Brooks noted, one must consider the lack of a running game when one evaluates Hartline.  His stats, once again, aren't bad, they just aren't awe-inspiring; 9 of 15 for 60 yards.  He didn't produce any touchdowns, but he protected the football.  He also played as if he's in a competition; his passes had much more 'mustard' on them than the previous week, and I thought he looked like a confident leader on the field.  All good signs, but he must start producing sustained, successful drives if he expects to hold off either a two quarterback system, or lose the job outright.  

The bottom line, as I see it; if Brooks and Phillips are going to backtrack on their previous public statements about only running a pro-style offense, and are now open to running a spread or option style offense, then Cobb will eventually be the #1 quarterback.  And I have to admit that Cobb, in the shotgun, in a three receiver set, is appealing to say the least.

Overall, the quarterback play Saturday was a distinct improvement over that of the U of L game.  The combined stats look like this; 15 of 26 for 147 yards, one passing touchdown, two rushing touchdowns, one interception and one fumble.

I look forward for the competition to continue in the coming weeks.  With a Middle Tennessee team that beat Maryland ( why did Maryland play AT MTSU ) coming up, this weeks game will go a long way in determining the direction the offense will take.

Offensive line

The offensive line did exactly what was expected of them; they dominated their opponent in the trenches, they protected the quarterback, and they opened up running lanes for the backs.  Some youngsters played extensively for the first time, led by redshirt freshman O-lineman Billy Joe Murphy, who played a great game. 

The running backs plus Cobb ran for 297 yards, and the quarterback was sacked only once ( and that wasn't their fault ). 

Saturday's game will be a more accurate gauge as to where they stand as far as being prepared for a rugged SEC schedule.

Defense

In the first half the defense looked, not lethargic, but not as focused and intense as they were against Louisville.  They gave up about 150 total yards in the first half, which is decidedly too many against a clearly inferior team.  But, somebody ( Brooks or maybe Steve Brown ) lit 'em up at half-time, because their second half performance was spectacular. 

  • NSU's yardage per drive in the second half -- -10, 2, 6, 4, -7, 8, -3, 14 = 14 total yards in the second half.  Wow. 
  • UK's defense held NSU to only 1 of 13 on third down conversions. 
  • NSU quarterback Dennis Brown was 9 of 24 for 97 yards ( he was sacked three times and endured countless pressures ). 
  • As a team the Spartans averaged only 2.3 yards per carry.

Kentucky's D did exactly what was expected going into the game.  Dominated.  Next!

Running Backs 

While is it a bit worrisome as to why the running backs are getting off to slow starts, their talent is clearly evident.  The four primary backs, plus fullback John Connor, rushed for 231 yards on 27 carries ( 8.6 yards per carry ).  Impressive, even considering the competition.  Brooks wasn't as enamored as I:

"Our running game looks good on paper at the end but it wasn't good when it needed to be early in the game." 

I suspect we will see continued improvement from all of the backs; they are playing and practicing for increased playing time every time they touch the ball.  No fan could ask for anything more, especially considering their cumulative talent level.

Special Teams 

Punters Tim Masthay and Ryan Tydlacka are playing unbelievably well.  The two combined for four punts, sporting a 44.8 yards per punt average.  NSU's average drive starting point, off of a punt or a kickoff, was the 17 yard line.  Outstanding.

With UK's vastly improved defense, forcing teams to go 80 yards to score a touchdown will be a huge advantage once SEC play starts.  Super-freak Tim Masthay's ability to put the ball in the back of the end zone on kick-offs totally negates the opponents return game.  And with both Masthay's and Tydlacka's hang-time on punts, punt return yards will be hard to come by.  UK's special team performers are living up to their position name; special. 

Final Analysis

Even considering the opponent, I came away from this game feeling good about the 'Cats.  They dominated the areas of the game that they should have, and the quarterback play was improved.  They still have much room to grow, but strides are being made. 

Coach Brooks, though, demands perfection:

"At this point and time, we are not in sync on offense.  We are still overcoming a lot of mistakes and we need to be perfect and not put ourselves in negative down and distance situations, and we still need to do a better job getting our running game going."

"... we need to be perfect ..."   I like his style.

Looking forward, Saturday's game versus Middle Tennessee looks to be a sturdier test than previously thought.  I am sure Brooks and company have the players undivided attention considering ( as was mentined above ) the Blue Raiders just defeated Maryland.  I think that's good, though, playing an opponent of this caliber will better reveal to us and the coaches where the 'Cats stand in their endeavor for Brooks-style perfection.

Thanks for reading, and Run,'Turtle' Run!

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