Hello. Is this thing on?
I'm a writer, not a hype man. Based on that, I'll admit this is the least excited I've been about attending a Kentucky football game in god knows how long. As a self professed super fan, tonight's game feels less like an event than an obligation. With a lame duck coach and an FCS opponent, there is little to recommend tonight's game to the casual fan. From 30,000 feet, the stakes are pretty low. A win would be nice but won't change anything about the state of the program. A loss would be embarrassing, but not altogether unexpected. Most importantly, a loss won't cost anyone a job. In two or three weeks, this program will be starting from scratch regardless.
Tonight's game is about the players. Facing an FCS opponent on Senior Night with a cobbled together offense, porous defense and a lame duck coach, they have two choices. Either the team will play listlessly and fold the tent, or it will come out with a new purpose and play hard for the departing seniors and coaching staff. I wish I could assure you it would be the latter. But if this Kentucky team could actually be counted on to bring it, we might not be having this conversation to begin with.
When we last saw Kentucky, it was taking a 40-0 beating from freaking Vanderbilt. The bye week and the firing probably haven't lifted anyone's spirits. Motivation is going to have to come from within. The most interesting aspect of tonight's game for me will be this: how much can these kids muster from pride alone?
The Samford Bulldogs are a good FCS football team. Currently 7-3, they are led by junior RB Fabian Truss, who was an All-SoCon choice last year and has already gone over 1,000 yards for the season. Samford actually does have something at stake tonight. This is its last game of the season and it is playing for one of ten at-large spots in the FCS playoffs. Currently just outside the top 25 in FCS, a win over Kentucky could put them in the hunt for one of the bids (10 are given to conference champions).
Yes, this is what it has come to.
WHEN KENTUCKY HAS THE BALL:
If I'm Kentucky, there isn't any mystery to how I play tonight. I'm going to try to run down Samford's throat. Their FCS opponents have gained an average of 147 yards per game on the ground, and ostensibly aren't working with the same tools as Kentucky on the offensive line. The Bulldogs have picked off 13 passes this year, and the last thing Kentucky needs is to get into another turnover debacle as it did against Western Kentucky. The Bulldog defense is led by safety Jaquiski Tartt, who leads the team with 87 tackles and four picks. He has an unreal 10 pass breakups and has scored twice this year on fumble recoveries. I don't care who you are playing, that is one hell of a football player.
I'd expect to see more two back sets for Kentucky and for the Cats to use FB DJ Warren to run the ball on occasion. Don't get it twisted, though. Samford is anything but undersized. Their starting linebackers average 234, and though they are thin at defensive line, there will be a couple of 290+ tackles to contend with.
The football media has been more obsessed with Joker's classy parting words and the coaching search of late, but my guess is we'll see both Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles at QB tonight. Hopefully Whitlow can get things going in the ground game and perhaps loosen things up for Towles to take shots downfield.
WHEN SAMFORD HAS THE BALL:
Samford has a balanced attack led by Truss and Memphis transfer and graduate student QB Andy Summerlin. Summerlin has been solid, if unspectacular. His top weapon in the passing game is junior WR Kelsey Pope, who has caught 63 balls after an 86 catch, All SoCon season as a sophomore. The Bulldogs weakness has been protecting the QB, as they've given up 27 sacks on the year.
For Kentucky, the mission is pretty simple. They need to prove that they can stop an offense, any offense. Since that is unlikely to occur against Tennessee, this is Kentucky's last and best chance. For all the injuries and lack of depth in the secondary, the defensive line has been the most disappointing aspect of this year's team. The Cats need to get to Summerlin on the edges and not get gashed up the middle by Truss. If Avery Williamson is making half of the defense's tackles eight yards off the line of scrimmage, as has often been the case this year, it may be yet another long day.
Excited yet? Listen, I don't want to make this sound all doom and gloom, but there aren't a lot of other conclusions to draw at this point. If Kentucky plays with pride and enthusiasm, really working to send Joker and their seniors out the right way, they should be fine tonight. Any SEC team should be about to take care of business against a good but not great FCS team.
However, if the same Kentucky team shows up that hit the field two weeks ago against Vandy, this will be a slugfest at best. At worst it could be a total disaster. I've seen it happen too many times in recent years. In 2010 against Ole Miss, Tennessee, the BBVA Compass Bowl. Last year Western Kentucky and Vanderbilt. This year damned near every week. Tonight should be different. For Joker, his staff and the seniors, tonight has to be different.
Or at least I hope like hell it is.
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