LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 05: Maxwell Smith #11 of the Kentucky Wildcats throws a pass during the game against the Mississippi Rebels at Commonwealth Stadium on November 5, 2011 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
On January 8, 2011, the Kentucky Wildcats lined up to play the Pittsburgh Panthers in something called the BBVA Compass Bowl. Pitt had just fired its second coach in two weeks and was playing, in essence, without a head man and under a group of assistants who were all probably coaching their last game. What followed was one of the least inspired performances I've ever seen from Kentucky. The Cats lost 27-10, spoiling Randall Cobb's final appearance as a Cat. I knew early on that I should not have bothered making the trip, and by halftime it was clear the Cats shouldn't have either.
For the period of exactly 20 months after that game, Kentucky football has operated under a giant cloud. The departure of Cobb and a host of other skills position talent left the Cats with very little firepower in 2011. The beginning of last season, where the team appeared to be substantially less than advertised at the quarterback, receiver and offensive line positions, was hard to swallow. Even as Kentucky defeated Western Kentucky and Central Michigan, things just didn't look right. A home loss to Louisville followed by a couple of very embarrassing efforts against South Carolina and Florida shook things to the doldrums.
Yes, the Cats pulled off a streak ending 10-7 victory over the Tennessee Volunteers to end the season, but that game did little to inform the overall direction of the program. The Cats had still missed a bowl game, and were led in an outstanding defensive effort by two great players playing their last game in blue. If anything, the Tennessee game showed that our coaching staff could adapt when necessary. Even our most ecstatic fans had to admit, though, that game was as much lost by UT as it was won by UK.
In the season opener against Louisville, the offense looked more than competent, but still left a number of points on the board. Kentucky's defense was another matter, as we were left to wonder what, if anything, the team had been practicing all summer.
Opening as only 7 point favorites against a middling MAC team, Kentucky entered last Saturday with quite a bit on the line. A loss Saturday would have been a death-knell to Joker's tenure at UK. As I told Ken in a text early Saturday, as an early storm drenched Lexington, I had a really bad feeling about the game. Instead, the weather in Lexington served as a metaphor as the skies parted prior to tailgate time and remained clear throughout the night.
For the first time in 20 months, a few rays of light began to shine on the Kentucky football program against Kent State. For reasons I'll get to in a moment, it wasn't the "be all end all", but Saturday's game gave disgruntled Cats fans a number of reasons to smile.
Max Smith is a real SEC quarterback. He looks better as a sophomore than Andre Woodson or Mike Hartline did, and certainly better than his predecessor did at any point in his career. Smith stands tall in the pocket, makes good reads, and doesn't panic. He may not have as much command or mid-range accuracy as Woodson, but he has a much quicker release, something that is important in the offense UK is trying to run. Smith may not be Tim Couch by the time his career is over, but barring injury he seems a likely to leap Hartline and Dusty Bonner into the Jared Lorenzen/ Woodson area of the UK quarterback pantheon. Above all, that has to be exciting for everyone.
Casual Kentucky football fans often use similar verbiage when discussing the team. Stop me if you've heard this before: "I don't care if we go to a bad bowl every year, I just want the team to be exciting to watch. Let's thow the ball like we did under Mumme." Kentucky has now thrown the ball 91 times in two games, and thanks to Smith, DeMarco Robinson, DeMarcus Sweat and Daryl Collins, it looks equipped to do so effectively for the next 3 years.
Saturday wasn't just about the young players, of course. The best storyline of the game came from Aaron Boyd, who has gone from forgotten man to the top 20 receivers in the FBS(in terms of receptions) in the season's first two weeks. Even when Boyd wasn't playing, Joker conceded that he still had the hands that made him a four star recruit. A lack of speed and seeming lack of urgency to improve may have been holding him back instead. Now, Boyd seems well positioned to help the Cats in their quick, short passing offense. Teaming with La'Rod King, he gives the team two big, surehanded targets.
Other upperclassmen like Gene McCaskill and Raymond Sanders played big roles in the win. Freshman DeMarcus Sweat looked like a future star on his one grab, breaking tackles while weaving his way to a 56 TD off of a screen pass. There are weapons, but more importantly, even the guys who aren't gamebreakers look COMPETENT, something we couldn't always say in 2011.
Other tweaks seem to have hit the spot. I've commented often about Kentucky being unwilling to try new things when old ones clearly are not going to work. This year, we've seen the Cats change tempo on offense, sometimes going with a no huddle attack. Whether this works well in the long term or not, I applaud the effort. The fourth quarter saw UK line Morgan Newton up at receiver and H-back (wonder where I heard that suggestion for the last 9 months?), again showing a willingness to adapt.
Kentucky needed a blowout, and its 33 point margin of victory was the biggest since the Cats took down Akron 47-10 on September 18, 2010. Yes, the game had been close and Kent St. let it get away from them a little bit. But Kentucky played a number of players and did what an SEC team is supposed to do to a MAC team, wore them out.
Don't get me wrong. Kentucky is not out of the woods this year by a longshot. The defense is still atrocious and Kent State's defense won't be confused with Alabama's or LSU's any time soon. Even if this team is vastly improved over the 2011 squad, a lot more things are going to have to fall into place before anyone starts making bowl plans. I still don't see us winning more than a game or two in the SEC. Our scehdule isn't looking any easier. Though Vandy may be taking the step back some people predicted, and Arkansas completely fell apart Saturrday, both MIssissippi St. and Tennessee have looked solid.
If I wanted to pick nits with the offense, I still could. The staff insists on using Newton in the Wildcat role, one that he has always been ill suited for. I'm still not sold on the 4th down decisionmaking, though I'll admit that all of these things are easier to complain about with the benefit of hindsight.
Here's what I do think, though. This team will put itself in a much better position to score points than in 2011. When a team scores points, its margin for error grows and the chance for generating an upset here and there improves. This team's problems are far from cured, but we at least have something to hang our hats on now. The cloud isn't lifted, but a few rays of sunshine got through on Saturday.
I'll take it.
Follow me on Twitter @AlexScutchfield