It isn't as if Kentucky football is a stranger to calamitous losses -- to be sure, the 41-7 shellacking by Florida last night is just the latest in a long, long line of crushing losses to the top teams in the SEC, and some of those losses happened in years where UK went on to have a good season by UK standards.
"By UK standards." Get used to that. As much as I believe Coach Rich Brooks when he says he wants Kentucky to be competitive in the SEC and trust that he will do everything possible to make that happen, I also know that given the reality of the SEC as it is, achieving that objective is a practical impossibility -- this year, at least.
Nuanced, analytical take-aways from games like yesterday are impossible, but not so broad themes. Florida reaffirmed the reality that high skill and high athletic talent will almost always defeat determination and lesser skill and athleticism. Having the rare leader like Tim Tebow on your team magnifies the overall dynamic remarkably, resulting in the kind of devastating results we saw yesterday.
Interestingly enough, I think Florida's sickness worked very much against the Wildcats. Teams play harder when they are perceived to have some disadvantage to overcome, and Urban Meyer is an expert at turning a negative like the rampant Florida non-specific URI into a net positive. The sickness helped focus the Gators, and they came out much more intense and aggressive than they might have otherwise. The last thing UK needed was a focused Florida team, even one suffering from a bout of the grunge.
Broadly, here are some of the things I thought I saw:
- The Gators plan was to get up big early and cruise to victory. Mission accomplished.
- "Wildcat" offense? Two plays? Really? Well, I suppose there was no point, anyway.
- Kentucky's team was completely unfocused on offense. Florida has a good defense, but not as good as they looked against UK last night. Hartline was not effective as a leader in this game, but the blame is far from his alone. UK needed to move the ball on the ground and to some extent did so effectively on occasion, yet all Phillips wanted to do was take shots down the field on first down.
- When UK wasn't killing its drives with penalties, it was trying to establish the pass before the run. Bass-ackwards, if you ask me.
- I would not expect UK's defense to stop the Gators, and the defense did pretty much what I expected -- they had some good moments, but mostly Florida moved the ball at will. That's really no shame -- UF will do that against almost everyone not in the top five. The defense did not lose this game for us. What little chance we had was to try to hang with Florida and hope for a timely turnover or three.
- I can think of no excuse for all the penalties UK had, and almost all of them were offensive penalties of the drive-killing variety. UK's only real chance against the Gators was a possession-type game where UK held the ball for long stretches and moved it into scoring position. Florida's offense is a big-play offense, and that can work against them in a possession game. But penalties, along with poor execution and some questlionable game strategy made that impossible.
- Strategically, I think the coaching staff had a bad game plan. UK tried to go vertical on too many first downs, instead of trying to manage down and distance. Florida's run defense is good, but UK proved they could move the football on them. The problem is, when you are down 31-0, a possession game kind of goes out the window. I think the staff panicked a little, then settled into a funk. This kind of beating hurts coaches as much as the players, and nobody is immune from the effects of a 31-0 first quarter.
UK is in a tough spot right now, but let's face it -- we will find out what kind of character this team has. A loss like this is devastating in the short term, and we all will wonder what the 'Cats can do to get back their perspective. South Carolina had a similar soul-crushing moment like this two years ago at North Carolina, and didn't win another game. That's what happens if the team lets this game bother them, or magnify the effect of a likely reprise against the Crimson Tide.
Alabama is an opportunity for UK to demonstrate to themselves they are better than they showed against Florida. Alabama is a very solid team, and may be the best defensive team in the nation, but they are not nearly as explosive or unstoppable on offense as the Gators. So while our odds of actually beating the Tide are long, indeed, I think that we match up better with them (slightly) than the Gators. My fear is, how do you get a team up for another top ten team after suffering such abuse at the hands of #1? Brooks & Co. will really have to earn their salary this week.
Is there anything to take hope from after the debacle last night? Not much, but here are a few things that the optimistic among us might latch on to:
- Special teams, particluarly the punt coverage, was pretty good if you can overlook Sam Maxwell's stupid missed block that allowed the blocked punt. I made an angry comment about Ortmayer, but honestly, UK's punting unit was really good other than that one play, and Tydlacka was positively impressive.
- Kickoff coverage was adequate.
- Hartline engineered one very good drive. Theoretically, he should be able to do that again, hopefully more often.
- Derrick Locke is still awesome, and needs to get the ball more.
- Tim Tebow will never forget this game. Thank God he was not seriously injured, that was a scary hit. But if UK can continue to bring the wood like that, it will be a good thing.
- The defensive line did a decent job with the pass rush.
- UK did not fumble the football. Of course, they also didn't run many plays ...
- Can't be too hard on the o-line. When you are third and long a lot, you are going to see blitzes that you just can't cover, especially when the opponent is up huge and can afford to take chances.
For the pessimists (we're equal-opportunity analyzers here at A Sea of Blue):
- Randall Cobb was a non-factor. I don't know if we couldn't get him the ball, or if he and Hartline have some kind of a thing going on. Given a tweet by Cobb earlier today, many are beginning to wonder.
- Chris Matthews really needs to learn the playbook. He ran routes all over the place today.
- UK in general needs to learn the playbook. The second Hartline pick was obviously a busted route or clueless Hartline -- the receiver broke left and Hartline expected him to break right.
- Tackling? Who needs tackling?
- The defensive line was completely victimized by the Gator's run blocking. Where were the linebackers in run support?
- Playcalling, a big deficit, first and second down execution put the o-line in a bad place on third down. UK has to figure out a way to make teams pay for bringing all those blitzes. So far, they haven't.
So there we go. I felt that after dashing off a negative diatribe, like I did last night, a more thoughtful follow-up was required. I have not completely lost faith in Kentucky, but I think we have to set our sights a little lower when it comes to expectations against the cream of the SEC crop. Having a shot at beating South Carolina and Auburn on the road are tall enough orders, but taking out Alabama or Florida, even at home, is not even on the menu this year it seems. That's just reality. Hopefully, most of us can live with it, but if not, there's always basketball season, which starts in just three weeks.
Chin up, 'Cat fans. There is life after embarrassment. A strong showing against Alabama would certainly help, and that isn't (quite) out of the question. As John Carter used to say when faced with impending doom, "I still live!" Well, ain't nobody dead yet.