Yesterday was one of those football games that got away. The Kentucky Wildcats came into Oxford a slight underdog against the Mississippi Rebels, but with a powerful offense going up against a defensive secondary that had been playing simply awful.
On the opening drive, UK drove 60 yards for a touchdown, all 60 courtesy of Derrick Locke via pass receptions and clutch running. Kentucky looked to be firing on all cylinders.
But after that, everything kind of went wrong. The next two UK possessions would produce a punt and a fumble at the UK 11 that Ole Miss took in for a score. Two more turnovers deep in UK territory, a fumble and an interception, produced 14 more Ole Miss points. That wound up being the story of the game.
Statistically, Kentucky drilled Ole Miss. But the only statistic that matters is the final score, and Ole Miss won that stat, no doubt about it. Ole Miss visited the UK red zone six times in this game, and all six times they came away with seven points. Many UK teams have had below-average defenses, but I can't remember one in the last six or seven years that was allowing 100% touchdown conversions in the red zone. This UK defense is.Observations about this game:
- Kentucky effectively moved their end zone 20 yards up the field, allowing Ole Miss to only have to go 80 yards to get a touchdown.
- Mike Hartline passed for 300 yards. Granted, Ole Miss' secondary has been very weak all year, but they still have SEC players and that is an impressive number. Hartline threw one pick and about three balls into bad places, but most of his passes were on target, and we saw none of the overthrown wounded ducks that have marred his past seasons. All in all, I think he had a good game.
- The bad game was by UK's linebackers and secondary. They struggled getting people down all day, they gave up several big plays both on the ground and in the air, and just generally played like Ole Miss' secondary had been playing up until now. In other words, they just stank.
- Give Ole Miss a ton of credit for taking advantage of what UK gave them, and UK gave them plenty. Three turnovers in their territory, two possessions on the 40-yard line from kickoffs out of bounds and a huge punt return. Ole Miss turned all but one of those miscues into seven points.
- How do you out-gain your opponent by 123 yards and lose? By turning the ball over deep in your own territory, and tacking 30 yards onto your opponents' drives by stupid personal foul penalties.
- Kentucky's defense is young, but they were out of position or outright busted so many times yesterday, you have to question what the coaches are doing. Whatever it is, it isn't working so far.
- How do you gain 424 yards on offense and only convert only 38% third downs?
- I know I am harping on this, but 7 penalties for 68 yards, most of them major, personal foul penalties. Before long, UK is going to get a reputation as a dirty team.
- I feel bad for the offense. They have produced all year long, but the defense is unwilling or unable to help.
- -3 turnover margin is going to beat you 9 times out of ten.
- Raymond Sanders looked good out there, and seems to be moving up the depth chart into the second position behind Locke as running back.
- Hartline must not press. He is a decent game manager, and his passes are now SEC-worthy. He needs to continue to play to his strength.
- Chris Matthews needs to get more passes thrown his way. In order to do that, the UK offensive line must give Hartline more time.
- What a tough break on that onside kick. Perfectly executed to no avail.
Kentucky needed this game to have a fairly easy path to the post season. They didn't get it. That means the path to the post season goes through teams like Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi State. Kentucky has a combined record of 6-14 since 2005 against those four teams, and although three of the four are at home, the team against which UK has had the most success, Mississippi State, is away.
This season, at the moment, is best reflected in a quote from the Elf-queen Galadriel in Lord of the Rings: "The quest balances on the edge of a knife. Stray but a little, and it will fail." If UK had won this game, failure would have become more difficult than success. That has now flip-flopped the other way.
UK's season is balanced, literally, on which way the defense falls -- if it continues to allow opponents to dominate the red zone, UK's season will certainly end in failure, as defined by a losing season, or failure to make the post season.
It seems that the Kentucky defense let the hangover from the Florida game get them. That is a luxury they cannot afford versus Auburn, who is highly ranked and putting up huge numbers offensively, or UK could suffer an embarrassing blowout in front of what is sure to be a large Commonwealth Stadium crowd.
It's time for this Kentucky team, Joker Phillips and particularly Steve Brown to put up, or shut up, when it comes to "Operation Win."