College football is fun, isn't it? You fire your coach and replace him with a bunch of highly successful coordinators who improve your recruiting to SEC-quality without having anything at all to sell to the new guys. Your new coach brings his new-look football team, which has garnered almost nothing but praise during practice, to play a directional in-state school. Your fans are expecting success, expecting improvement in every facet of the game.
Then, as usual, the good feelings do not survive contact with the opponent, and you defecate the bed, leading to embarrassment and bitter disappointment.
That's it in a nutshell.
In the comments, one person, in colorful language sprinkled with ALL CAPS comments for emphasis, spouted a bunch of homer talking points about PROCESS, IMPROVE EACH DAY and FIRST GAME while assuring me that I was ignorant. All this may be so, but what I do know is what an improving football team looks like. I saw one on the field last night, too — it just wasn't the boys in Blue and White.
My apparently lying eyes saw a football team composed of players rated at 3-star or above out of high school get dominated by players rated at 2-star or below at almost every position. That fact yields two distinct possibilities:
- The ratings are misleading and/or wrong by the scouting services, or
- The scouting services were more right than wrong, and the lower-level players were simply better coached.
Several analyses have shown, over the years, that recruiting service star ratings definitely do correlate with success, although at the lower levels, it could be convincingly argued that evaluations are less comprehensive. For the "recruiting services fail" theory to be right, Western would have had to recruit a team full of Randall Cobb equivalents while Kentucky recruited a team full of Morgan Newtons. That's simply unlikely, even for the much-maligned Joker Phillips, who must be thinking to himself today, "Miss me yet?"
It is also possible that Kentucky was so poorly coached before that they simply couldn't be fixed, at least not in time for this game. I look back to James Franklin's success at Vanderbilt as a counterpoint to that — he didn't seem to need more than one off season to show how much a team can improve. Vanderbilt has always recruited at a lower level than Kentucky, and they went from 2-10 to 6-7 in the same time frame. So while we may have been asking a lot, we weren't asking more than others have enjoyed.
By these two examples, it seems unlikely that the "first game" and "inaccurate recruiting evaluations" are right. There is probably a little bit of both at work, but at least in the opinion of your humble correspondent, neither explains the failure of this team to fire last night.
Both Western Kentucky and Kentucky had first-year coaches. WKU has Bobby Petrino, a proven winner as a head coach with a deeply flawed character. His character issues have never, ever manifested themselves on the field of play, however. Kentucky had Mark Stoops, a rising defensive coordinator who has turned defenses around at several coaching stops.
Petrino completely outcoached Stoops in this game, and no mistake. His power/spread offense shredded the former defensive coordinator's defensive schemes, and that's not even the half of it. Petrino was always one step ahead of Stoops, and Stoops was completely defensive and reactionary.
With all that said, I still think Stoops is the right guy for the job. College football at this level is an unforgiving sport, especially when you are thrown in against a pro who has been successful everywhere he has gone. I have no doubt this was a painful lesson for coach Stoops, but we all knew going in that this team had some major deficiencies. That was never more evident than last night, but we had good reason to expect more than we got.
Some will complain that I am being hard on the coach, but I simply don't have the luxury of being a complete homer all the time. I have been optimistic, but when you see some of that optimism come into contact with reality and look a little silly, you can either be honest, or hide your head in the sand and throw out words like "process" and "get better every day." In all honesty, this was a poor performance by the coaching staff. Hopefully, it will get better, but they looked ill prepared and tentative. I didn't see any of the enthusiasm I expected, and that mitigates my optimism for the immediate future, at least. Let's all hope it doesn't bleed over into recruiting.
What we saw last night was Kentucky's defensive line, which was supposed to be the strength of the team, get dominated by the smaller and presumably less-talented Western Kentucky offensive line. To me, this is the #1 reason why Kentucky lost the game, and the reason why that was so unexpected is because Kentucky added several excellent pieces to the defensive line depth last spring.
With one of the best defensive players in the SEC, Bud Dupree, returning as a starter, along with two tackles who would have been starters last year had they been healthy, Kentucky had what looked like a strong defensive line to every football analyst out there. Throw in Avery Williamson, the second-leading tackler last year, and a defensive-minded head coach with a proven track record at turning defenses around, and you have what looked like a recipe for a stingy defense, particularly against the run.
All Western did was hang 216 net rushing yards on Kentucky, most of them gotten by tough, effective inside running between the tackles, where the defensive line should have been at its best. Focus in on that fact, because it's critical — the defensive line, which is considered SEC-level, lost convincingly to a Sun Belt offensive line all game long.
Kentucky's secondary was weak, as it was expected to be. They made the WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty look like a Heisman Trophy candidate, but everyone expected that was more or less likely. The UK defense surrendered 271 yards passing to Western, which is right in line with the 275 yards UK surrendered, on average, last year. Given how thin Kentucky is in the defensive backfield, I think this, while not very good against a Sun Belt program, is more or less in line with what we should have expected. I would have hoped for improvement, but a couple of starters were hut, and that exacerbated the problem.
In a way, Kentucky was very fortunate — Western Kentucky's wide receivers were mostly not very good, and the best among them, Willie McNeal, dropped at least four balls that would have gone for big plays or first downs. But even considering that, UK's defensive backs yielded too many 5-10 yard easy pass completions due to the soft defense they played. For heaven's sake, if you're going to allow a team to dink you to death, you're going to have a hard time getting them off the field. Kentucky's corners simply must man up and press the receivers, or every team is going to take the easy 5-10 yard completion on us.
Neal Brown's Air Raid offense was anything but last night, at least until Maxwell Smith relieved Jalen Whitlow in the fourth quarter. We have been told to expect a lot of running in Brown's version of the Air Raid, but the offense is misnamed when the run/pass percentage is 53% run, 47% pass. In fact, if you look at the plays where Whitlow was the quarterback, the run/pass percentage was around 32% pass, 68% run.
What that tells me is that Jalen Whitlow is not the correct quarterback for an Air Raid scheme. Now, before you jump up and say, "But Neal Brown said his version runs more!", let me explain to you what "more" means in this context. Neal Brown learned the Air Raid, as a coach, under former Hal Mumme assistant Tony Franklin at Troy. His version of the Air Raid, in Brown's salad days as Texas Tech's offensive coordinator, produced a roughly 70/30 pass/run ratio. Even 60/40 in favor of the pass is out of whack for Brown's offense, and no Air Raid offense I have ever heard of has a higher run percentage than pass. Mike Leach threw the ball over 90% of the time at Washington St. last year, for example. So seeing a higher run percentage than pass tells me that we weren't really running the Air Raid last night.
I can only assume that we have a difference of opinion among the coaching staff here. I think that Stoops prefers Whitlow's athleticism, but Brown prefers Maxwell Smith's much better passing ability, and the fact that he's a much better fit for his offense than Whitlow. Judging by the comments from last night, I am even more strongly convinced that Stoops made the decision, not Brown. I presume, given what we saw last night, that they will want to revisit that decision.
Whitlow is a fine athlete, but he lacks confidence throwing the ball, not to mention touch and good decision-making. If Western's defensive backs had sticky fingers, Whitlow would have been picked off at least twice last night. To be fair, Smith also threw some balls that, against an SEC defense, would likely have been intercepted. But Smith is a much more confident passer, and has improved his deep ball accuracy significantly, if not his arm strength. There is no question that if Brown wants to run the Air Raid at Kentucky, Whitlow cannot be the quarterback. We can run the Veer, the Urban Meyer version of the spread/read option, the triple-option, or Willie Taggert's version of the West Coast offense with Whitlow, but trying to run the Air Raid with him at the helm is very much like Bill Curry trying to run the triple option with Tim Couch — it just isn't a fit.
Kentucky moved the football relatively well at times against a Western Kentucky defense that is very good, and arguably even better than last year's squad. They moved it both with Whitlow and with Smith in the game, and Whitlow demonstrated why he needs to be on the field by breaking off some big chunks of yardage running the ball. Unfortunately, he is not in the right position, and I hope that will become clear after this game. But with that said, Kentucky did demonstrate the ability to make plays when they were able to focus.
The offensive line was a pleasant surprise. They protected well, and the run blocking wasn't horrible. I won't say it was a huge improvement from last year, but it was an improvement, particularly the pass protection. What wasn't good was the astonishing amount of confusion and the proliferation of drive-killing penalties. As much as anything, the fact that Kentucky was so often flagged for illegal motion in the early downs was the reason why the Wildcats couldn't simply outscore the Hilltoppers in an offensive explosion.
The wide receivers didn't drop balls. That's a good thing. But their route-running was not particularly good, and I saw several make the wrong call on option routes. Several times receivers were out of position, forcing the quarterback to try to make a perfect throw. Another thing I noticed was that we simply didn't throw the ball to the tight ends enough.
Overall, the offense was just okay, but that was more a function of the unfortunate decision to stick with Whitlow. That decision allowed Western's defense to stack the box and thwart the run more than they should have been able to do. Whitlow simply isn't enough of a threat to throw the ball, so the defense can live with one-on-ones in the secondary and bring extra defenders into the box, which explains why Kentucky wasn't able to run the ball very effectively. Most of those rushing yards came off about 3 big plays, but the running between the tackles was not particularly effective.
The one bright spot in this game was special teams play. Last year, Kentucky's special teams were loathsome, but yesterday they did a lot of very good things out there. From the punt that got tipped out of the end zone to the nice returns to the excellent kickoff and punt coverage, the one thing that felt SEC quality yesterday was special teams. Kentucky held Western to 4.2 yards on average for the punt returns while amassing 27 for itself. Kickoff returns could have been better, but the coverage was great, holding WKU's dangerous return men to only 20 yards per return on average.
On the negative side, Kentucky missed a critical extra point. Yes, really. And Mansoor shanked an onside kick out of bounds. Both those things, however, were purely kicking errors that are unlikely to be repeated.
Bradley Dale Peveto has done a really good job getting special teams to buy into a total commitment, and it was obvious from the first kickoff. Special teams play will win you a lot of games at every level, and if this is what we can expect for the rest of the year, it gives me reason for some hope if the Wildcats can defend better.
Kentucky won the turnover battle 2-1, and that likely prevented this game from becoming very lopsided. Both Western's turnovers came off of big plays that would have put the Hilltoppers into the red zone, where they were very efficient, so if you're thinking "well, we only lost by 9," disabuse yourself of that notion. Kentucky was defeated completely last night, and no mistake.
What this means
In a nutshell, a season without much joy, unfortunately. I was thinking that Kentucky might manage five wins, but now, that seems rather unlikely. Absent a major turnaround, which is fortunately not out of the question, I think UK might be uncompetitive in all but three or four games. I consider last night an uncompetitive game, because Western's mistakes prevented them from adding at least two and possibly three more scores. No matter how you look at it, getting dominated by a Sun Belt team is as good a definition of "uncompetitive" as any when you are in the SEC.
Continuing on that theme, I have said a successful season could include fewer wins if we were competitive in most games. An uncompetitive game against Western does not bode well for that measurement.
I have fretted that losing this game could hurt recruiting. Let's all pray that this is not the case, and trust me, I will be very, very happy if that turns out to be an unfounded fear. No real need to elaborate on that further.
Please do not think that I have given up on this team, I haven't, and I urge you not to do so, either. Football, as I said before, is unforgiving, and big turnarounds are extremely rare. Even a modest turnaround may be impossible given the difficult schedule the team faces this season. Let's hope not, but realize that it is a very real possibility.
For team morale, this is a blow, but these young guys can recover if they are properly handled. This will be an excellent test of this young staff, seeing how they manage morale and bring these guys back from what is both an embarrassing and bitterly disappointing loss. Here at A Sea of Blue, we didn't give up on the football team even in the face of a dismal campaign last year, and let's be honest, Stoops is still learning how to do this. Denying him the latitude to suck a bit while he figures it all out would be wrong, and although I will not back off my criticism of him when it is warranted, it is intended to be honest and constructive, not nasty and vituperative .
Most of us learned last year that burying our head in the sand and ignoring the sad state of affairs was not the right thing to do. At the same time, we should not over-react in the other direction and overstate the difficulties of the new regime. We will try to strike a balance between honest criticism and optimism, and that certainly carries its own challenges.
So now, I'm off to read the opinions of others. Look for the Quickies to be the afternoon version today.