Kentucky Football: Reasons to Believe in Blue

Get used to it: Derrick Locke runnin' for six.

1 - 0, and four straight Cardinal "de-feathering's" ... Where I come from, ain't nothin' wrong with that.

With the Kentucky Wildcats' 23-16 closer-than-it-should-have-been victory over a game Louisville Cardinal squad, UK coach Joker Phillips must have come away from the contest feeling his team performed an Oscar-worthy impression of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, especially as it pertains to penalties, and the Cats' first and second half performances.

UK, while doing some great things on offense and defense, oftentimes shot themselves in the cleats with ill-timed mistakes, which hindered the Cats' opportunities to stretch the lead to a comfortable margin.  But, for the first game of the season (on the road), and with several rookie starters, as well as a plethora of freshmen seeing major snaps, Phillips has to feel good about his team's overall performance.  And Phillips must be positively ecstatic about getting his first win as head coach, in his first game as head coach, against his longtime friend and new rival Charlie Strong.  But, putting a damper on the win, though -- The word is; the NCAA is looking into an alleged Hartline impostor ... supposedly, the suits in Indianapolis don't believe the same guy who's been at UK for three seasons is the same guy they saw Saturday, tossing the ball around like a legitimate SEC quarterback.

For a breakdown of the good, the bad, and the inexcusable, follow me after the jump.

The good has to start with quarterback Mike Hartline.  A major question mark coming into the year because of his previous struggles with stretching the defense and turnovers, Hartline answered at least a few of the queries with his much improved, albeit, imperfect performance. 

  • Hartline's 17-26 passing effort equates to a 65.4% completion rate, which is much better than his nearly 56% completion rate of a year ago. 
  • Hartline, who averaged just under 10 yards per completion last season, saw that all-important number jump considerably to 12.8 yards per completion after throwing for 217 yards.
  • On first down, Hartline completed 6 of 8 passes for 113 yards (a fantastic 18.8 yards per completion), good for five first downs.  And on second and long (six or more yards to go), Hartline completed 4 of 8 passes for 30 yards (7.5 ypc).
  • In the first half, Hartline put together an exceptional stat line: 10 of 12 for 115 yards (11.5 ypc), while completing two passes of at least 25 yards.  His second half completion percentage dropped to 50.0% on 7 of 14 passing, but he threw for 102 yards (14.6 ypc), with four completions of 16 yards or longer.
  • Hartline also checked-off the play at the line of scrimmage at least twice (once checking off a pass in favor of a run, which resulted in a nice Derrick Locke ground gain), something we haven't witnessed a UK signal caller do since the days of Andre' Woodson.  This shows Joker Phillips and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders are growing comfortable with trusting Hartline's judgment.  Speaking of judgment, at least two of Hartline's six incompletions were the result of his throwing the ball away, instead of forcing the issue and risking an interception. 
  • Another aspect of Hartline's game that saw significant improvement was him "looking off" several receivers, not going with the hot route, and finding secondary receivers for strikes.  This aspect of quarterbacking cannot be underestimated -- Over the last two years we've seen UK quarterbacks attempt to force the ball into the hands of the primary receiver, which has many times led to interceptions and incompletion's.     
  • No touchdowns for Hartline, but more importantly, zero interceptions and zero fumbles.

Of Hartline's six incompletions, at least two of the wayward passes were due to the wrong routes being run by the receivers; a very dangerous scenario.  He also threw a couple of passes behind his intended target, including one to Randall Cobb as the UK wide out ran across the middle -- If not for Cobb making one of the best catches in traffic (one-handed circus grab) I've ever seen, another incompletion would have been registered in the books.

But, Hartline's long ball was tight and on-target, and he even displayed a bit of arm strength with a couple of his throws beyond the the 20-yard mark.

Overall for Hartline, a very strong performance when judged against the backdrop of his previous efforts.  And in a game in which UK ran the ball exceedingly well, Hartline didn't have to throw for 300 yards in order for the Cats to come out victorious.

Second in the category of the good, has to be the aforementioned Wildcat running game and the youthful Wildcat offensive line, which opened up Texas-sized gaps for the backs to run through. 

  • Derrick Locke ran like the All-SEC performer his is -- 23 carries for 104 yards (4.5 yards per carry) and two touchdowns.  Add Locke's three catches for 21 yards, and the senior tailback was good for 125 total yards.  If Locke is able to remain healthy, he has the look of someone poised for a big year.
  • Randall Cobb, out of the "Wildcat" formation, rushed four times for 80 yards (20.0 ypc), and one touchdown.  In addition, he caught two passes for 19 yards. Cobb is electric, Cobb is as good as green money, Cobb needs to carry the ball more than four times, and touch the ball more than six times within the confines of the offense, although I did like Phillips going with Cobb in the "Wildcat" for the final 3:16 of game -- In that span, UK fan for 35 yards and passed for 19, sealing the victory.
  • Star-in-waiting Donald Russell was solid -- Six carries for 36 yards (6.0 ypc).  Russell hits the hole quicker than Locke, and accelerates like he's the new star of "The Fast and the Furious."
  • On 20 first down carries, the UK running backs rushed for an acceptable 4.6 yards per carry.  On second and short (four yards or less to go for a first down) the Cats' runners gained the first down twice.  And on six second and long carries, Locke and company ran for 24 yards (6.0 ypc).
  • In the first half, UK backs ran for an incredible 9.7 yards per carry; in the second half the average gain per carry dropped to 4.3 yards.  Still an acceptable number, but the longest run of the second stanza was only 14 yards. 
  • The O-Line deserves much credit for the Cats' impressive performance on the ground, but just as important, the Cards were unable to get to the quarterback. 
  • A special mention here: The Cat with perhaps the biggest shoes to fill in 2010, is fullback Moncell Allen.  Replacing the path-clearing blocking and fear-no-evil running style of NFL-bound John Conner had to seem like a monumental task to Allen, but he showed Saturday why fans should have faith.  Allen blazed many a trail for Locke and Russell against the Cards, filling the mighty shoes of Conner to the brim.

Overall, the UK running game accounted for 230 yards on 37 carries for a team average of 6.2 yards per carry; not totally unexpected against a struggling Cardinal defense, but justification for the 57.8% run rate (37 run, 27 pass) for the game.  

Also falling squarely into the good category were Kentucky receivers La'Rod King, Chris Matthews, Matt Roark, and tight end Jordan Aumiller:

  • King, who ended last season very strong, caught three passes for 58 yards (19.3 yards per reception).  King continues to impress with his strong route running and soft hands. 
  • Matthews, in his final year with the Cats looked strong early, just as he did last season.  He also caught three passes for 56 yards (18.7 ypr). 
  • Roark, coming to life after two years of dormancy, caught three passes for 47 yards (15.7 ypr).  At 6-6, Roark is a huge target, and if he continues to catch the ball (which has been his problem).
  • Combined, King, Matthews, and Roark caught nine passes for 161 yards, a much, much improved 17.9 yards per catch.  Stretching the defense?  Well, there ya go.
  • Reserve tight end, freshman Jordan Aumiller, caught two passes for 23 yards.  Not huge numbers, but taken in context -- Aumiller's first game as a Cat -- leads me to believe that perhaps the fact that Hartline targeted the tight end spot is a portend of things to come.  Phillips likes to use the tight end as a pass catcher whenever possible, now it seems UK has someone capable of getting open and making the catch.

Other than a couple of routes being run wrong, UK's wide outs acquitted themselves quite well on Saturday.

And finally, the Kentucky defense, including punter Ryan Tydlacka, as well as the strong legged Joe Mansour, deserves kudos for their good play.

  • Although the UofL offense averaged 5.2 yards per play, if one takes away the 80 yard touchdown gash Cardinal running back Bilal Powell perpetrated on a precision running play, the Cards yards per offensive play number drops to 3.5.
  • Louisville gained a total of 317 yards (UK gained 466 total yards).  Certainly an acceptable defensive performance, but once again, take away the Powell scamper, and UofL gained only 237 yards on the afternoon.
  • Defensive end Taylor Wyndham (he of the Tim Tebow pancake) forced a fumble with linebacker Ridge Wilson recovering. 
  • Linebacker Danny Trevathan, the newly minted SEC Defensive Player of the Week, led the Cats with 11.5 tackles on the day, and 3.5 tackles for loss.  Trevathan looked like the player he was projected to be: Active and a relentless pursuer of the pigskin.
  • The Cardinals converted only four of 15 third downs (26.7%), compared to UK's six of 13 conversion rate (46.2%).
  • Defensive back Mychal Bailey, a JUCO transfer who the coaches have been raving about since the beginning of camp, intercepted his first pass as a Cat on a lame duck toss by Card quarterback Adam Froman.  The pick killed a UofL drive at the UK 23 yard line.  Congratulations young man!
  • Froman, by the way, struggled to a 14-29 passing day, good for 127 yards (9.1 yards per completion).  Partial credit for the Card quarterback struggling goes to the very young UK secondary.  Young, maybe, but speed aplenty, and speed is what's it's all about in the SEC  (for affirmation, check-in with Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and his oft-toasted Buckeyes).
  • Ryan Tydlacka's outstanding punting performance (four punts; 49.8 average) kept the Cards out of positive field position for most of the day.  And kick-off artist, freshman Joe Mansour, had three touch backs on his five total kick-offs.

Conversely, the bad ... was well, pretty bad. 

Leading the badness out of the tunnel and onto the field are the Kentucky penalties, with an assist from the Wildcat run defense and kick coverage

  • Eleven penalties in all, for 90 yards; quite a change from last season's SEC-leading 37 penalty yards per game.
  • Not surprisingly, the Cat miscues (other than a first quarter delay of game) were committed by either first year starters, or freshmen.  Blame nerves if you will, but unnecessary, ill-timed, coach-killing penalties are the bane of any longtime UK football fan; leading many to drop to their knees in an effort to conjure-up divine intervention.  Hopefully Saturday's game, plus the next two games against WKU and Akron, are the tonic the youngsters need to cure their collective penalty blues.
  • The most egregious of the errors was Ridge Wilson's fourth quarter roughing the passer penalty against Cardinal quarterback Adam Froman on 4th & 17!!, keeping alive a Cardinal drive that ended with a field goal, making the score 23-16.  One piece of advice -- If one is going to late-hit the qb, make it count.   
  • Left tackle Chandler Burden's false start penalty on 3rd & 2 from the Cardinal three-yard line also directly affected the scoreboard -- Subsequent to Burden's penalty, the Cats received no points for their trip to the red zone, after Tydlacka missed a 25 yard field goal attempt.
  • While the UK defense earned a passing grade, the unit still gave up 190 yards on the ground and 5.9 yards per carry to the Cardinal runners -- Take away the 80 run by Powell and those numbers drop to 110 yards on 3.5 yards per carry.  The Cats, though, have to find a way to corral the featured backs they face, and limit the big play; although Bilal Powell is a dynamic tailback, he isn't the best running back the Cats will face this year ... Demps, Jeffery Demps anyone ...
  • Louisville averaged an incredible 45.5 yards per kick-off return (on two returns), aided by Victor Anderson's 67 yard return to the UK 33 yard line (the Cards missed a 44 yard field goal attempt as a result of the return).  The Cats also allowed a 28 yard punt return -- Tightening up special team's play should be a focus of this week's practice as well as the upcoming WKU and Akron games.  Special team speed awaits once the SEC slate begins.  Prepare, thy Cats, or be burned.

Leading the inexcusable charge is kicker Ryan Tydlacka (I don't feel too bad for calling out Tydlacka because I gave praise for his exceptional punting).  His off-the-mark 25 yard field goal attempt leaves him 4 of 7 (57.1%) on field goals for his career.  Leaving me to wonder when we'll see Joe Mansour taking the kicks.

Seventy-five to eighty percent field goal accuracy is what coach's strive for, unfortunately, Kentucky fans haven't seen that type of kicking game precision for over four years now.  It's cost the Cats at least three or four games in that time-span, and Kentucky doesn't have the type of program that can leave points on the field and beat good teams. 

Overall, the Cats gave Kentucky fans many reasons to look optimistically toward the future -- A seemingly much improved Mike Hartline, a young secondary blessed with blazing speed, an offensive line further along than most thought, an emerging stable of receivers, and the two best offensive players on the field in Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb.

Are seven, eight, nine Wildcat wins in the offing, continuing UK's string of four straight winning seasons and four straight bowl bids?  If the youngsters continue to improve, and everyone stays healthy, the future most decidedly looks bright.

Up next for the Wildcats are the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and another first-year head coach, Willie Taggart.

Thanks for reading, and Go Cats!

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