In retrospect, having high expectations for this game was probably not a good idea.
Kentucky ran roughshod over two of their first three opponents, but those three opponents have managed exactly zero wins against FBS competition. In fact, Kentucky's competition so far has one only one football game among them -- Louisville against FCS Eastern Kentucky.
I knew two things going into this game -- the Gators were young but talented, and that their offense had not executed well in their first three tries. Last night, one of those two things changed.
Florida executed their offense with nearly flawless precision. They made almost no mistakes, their inexperienced receivers caught every ball thrown their way, and even though Kentucky managed to largely stop the big plays that have devastated them over the last four years, all sorts of smaller plays added up to the very same thing -- a drubbing.
Is there any good to be found in a lopsided 48-14 loss? Yeah, I guess, a little hope can be found in there. We'll look into that after the jump.
There is precious little good to be found but just as you cannot ignore the ugly truth, you have to admit the not-so-ugly, even when you really don't want to. Here were the good things I saw:
- The emergence of Chris Matthews as a legitimate threat. So far, Matthews has been underutilized by the Kentucky offense, but he pretty much was the Kentucky offense last night. All the big plays on the Kentucky side had Chris Matthews' stamp on them.
- Kentucky's offense piled up yards, but not points. Even discounting the last 8 or 10 minutes when Florida pulled their starters, Kentucky moved the football. They simply could not sustain the drives or get the ball into the end zone.
- Mike Hartline was, for the first time, genuinely competent against an SEC defense. Yes, I know he threw 2 interceptions including a pick six, but that doesn't erase a 21/39 effort in which at least six catchable balls were dropped by UK receivers. It wasn't a great performance, but it was not Hartline's play that was responsible for this beating.
- The defense was very stout in the second quarter, holding Florida without an offensive touchdown. For as overmatched as the line was, that was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal performance.
- The big plays that have dogged Kentucky when they played Florida were largely absent in this game other than the pick six in the second quarter.
This list is potentially endless. I'm just going to pick a few things:
- Run blocking. Run blocking was a mess. Locke never had a chance, and holes were rare and small. Florida got penetration on every play. UK never seriously threatened Florida on the ground, despite Locke's 103 yards and 4.5 yard average.
- The defense underneath. Kentucky's defense was simply not able to handle the short, underneath routes that are the staple of the Urban Meyer offense.
- The pass rush. It was non-existent. Credit Florida's outstanding offensive line for that, but UK's D-line was just too small.
- The offensive game plan. I am no coach, but in my opinion, Kentucky needed to use the pass to establish the run in this game from the opening possession. UK's receivers are really very good, and Hartline, despite his faults, has been getting them the ball in good spots. If UK could have taken that opening possession down the field and scored, even a field goal, this game may have gone differently.
- The tackling. As has been the case for years at UK, the tackling was not very good. Oh, Kentucky managed to keep the Gators from breaking huge plays, but allowed a lot of pretty big ones.
When you look at the stats of this game, you wonder how in the world Florida managed such a lopsided victory:
3rd down efficiency
4th down efficiency
Yards per pass
Yards per rush
It just doesn't look that horrible, does it? Yet it was. A lot of the credit goes to Urban Meyer's game plan, particularly offensively. Meyer knew right where to hit us -- in the middle, where our linebackers were either hurt, slow, or too young to handle the speed and precision of the Florida attack.
The thing that killed Kentucky was Florida's red zone efficiency. Every time Florida got the ball down there, they scored. A 100% red zone efficiency is a sure recipe for success, especially with Trey Burton getting into the end zone a miraculous six times. I'm sure Phillips didn't game plan for that guy, but I'll bet he does next time.
We have to be honest with ourselves here, both in a good way and a bad. Going down into The Swamp and beating the Gators is a mighty tall order for any team, and all but maybe 30 or so teams in the BCS would have been dismissed nearly as rudely as Kentucky was. Florida is not a top ten team for nothing, and last night, they showed us exactly why that was.
But outside of Alabama and Florida, I still think Kentucky has a chance to defeat any team in the SEC. The next six games against SEC foes all look winnable, even considering Kentucky's lousy performance versus the Gators -- winnable in the sense that UK is likely to be in the ball game a lot longer and, with their offensive weapons, more likely to come out on top.
This game was exactly what we expected it to be in one sense -- a validation, or rather, an invalidation. Kentucky is not as good as many outsiders thought and many UK fans hoped. But even with that said, they are plenty good enough to threaten all but the top teams in this conference, particularly in the cozy confines of Commonwealth Stadium.
The big fear, though, is that the disappointment and shock of this game might wind up beating us again down in Oxford, where UK really needs a win. Ole Miss has been a disappointment to say the least so far, but they are an SEC team that UK will be visiting, and the road in the SEC is a notoriously unfriendly place. It is not usually 48-14 unfriendly, but Florida just seems to own us right now. For Kentucky to ever threaten the top teams in this conference, they must first become a good mid-pack team. The 'Cats have plenty of opportunities to prove that's what they are coming up.
The Final Word
I think we are all disappointed, but I think the reality is that we were getting ahead of ourselves. Florida looked very much like a top team against the Wildcats, and if they manage to knock off Alabama or make it very close, this defeat will not look nearly as horrible as it felt. UK was not expected to contend for the SEC East this year, nor will they likely do so. But the Wildcats could still have a lot to say about how the SEC turns out, and for Kentucky to ever become a player in the SEC, it has to pay its dues first.
This defeat is one of those dues, and there will be more. We need to forget this one and put it on Ole Miss next weekend. That will cure a lot of these hurts, and put the Wildcats back on track.