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UK Football: Beating Back the Overreaction, and Kentucky's Areas of Need

Kentucky's unceremonious 41-7 de-cleating at the hands of the Florida Gators on Saturday seems to have unleashed a chorus of negativity, and talk of the need for change within the UK football program.  I suppose I'm not surprised at the outcry, but I should be.  You see, even in seasons in which they win more than they lose, UK has consistently found a way to suffer indignant defeat -- Fran Curci's 1976 9-3 season was briefly interrupted by a 31-7 loss to the Georgia Bulldogs in Lexington; Jerry Claiborne's 1983 team, which went 6-5-1, lived through two beatings: One at home to Auburn, 49-21 (I was at that game), and another on the road at Georgia, 47-21; again in 1984, a UK team that recorded a fine 9-3 mark, lost two games by wide margins: To LSU in Lexington, by a score of 36-10, and at home the very next week to Georgia, 37-7; Billy Curry's 1993 Wildcats finished the season 6-6, but lost 48-0 to Tennessee; Hal Mumme's 1998 Tim Couch-led 'Cats went 7-5, yet lost 59-21 to Peyton Manning and the Tennessee Vols; in 1999 UK went 6-6 and lost to both Florida, 38-10, and Tennessee (who won the national title), 56-21, by wide margins; Guy Morriss' underrated 2002  team that went 7-5 lost 53-24 to Georgia, in Lexington (I was at that game as well).  And finally, in the last four years, (a high-water mark in UK football history), the 'Cats have lost games in embarrassing fashion each season-- 2006, 49-0 at LSU -- 2007, 31-14 to the underdog Mississippi State Bulldogs -- 2008, 63-5 to Florida, and of course Saturdays 41-7 Gator drubbing.

What does this tell us, or at least, what should this tell us?  Well, the first thing the above scores indicate to me is ...

... Kentucky is paying the price for competing in the SEC; generally the strongest football conference in the land.

One aspect of UK's failing to gain considerable ground in their race to become nationally relevant in football is the fact that they compete against the very best teams in the country, on a yearly basis.  Couple that with the fact that building a solid football team is a strenuously tall task, and you're left with a program, which for the last 50 years or so, has failed to maintain consistency.  Which is what makes what Rich Brooks has achieved in putting together three straight bowl wins a commendable accomplishment.

But, in developing a program the Commonwealth can be proud of, there are teams such as Florida, Georgia, LSU, and Tennessee that display, in living color, what it is UK strives to achieve: A football team complete with the necessary components for playing consistently winning football -- Great skill position players, and incredible team speed, to go along with linemen who know what it feels like to push around some of the nations elite players.

To hold UK to the same standard (at this point, anyway) as the above teams, as it pertains to the number of All-SEC caliber players on Kentucky's roster, is simply unrealistic and patently unfair to the Wildcat team and coaches.  To be sure, UK is in the process of building what we all hope becomes a consistently solid football program, but inherent in that growth is the occasional loss which makes one turn away from the television with disgust.  And that's what we witnessed Saturday ... no more, no less.

So the recent burst of negative energy coming out of the UK fan base seems a bit misguided, and naive.  Make no mistake, though, the numerous unnerving UK penalties, especially at the beginning of Saturdays tilt, contributed to the Gators easily covering the spread.  But, UK's offensive and defensive line were clearly inferior to their Florida counterparts.  And as any knowledgeable football fan knows, the game is won or lost in the trenches.  But of course, the Gators are, if not the best team in the country, one of the two or three most dominant groups in the nation, which should also be reason enough to give UK football fans pause.  For comparing this group of Wildcats to one of the preeminent teams in the country is fallacy at its finest. 

Saturday's game did, quite clearly, illustrate the talent gap still in existence between UK and the top tier SEC clubs; the game quite clearly illustrated that UK still has ample room to grow as a program; and finally, with UK once again losing handily to a superior SEC opponent, the game quite clearly illustrated that the 'Cats still have another hurdle to overcome in their quest to become a formidable football program. 

What fans must remember is; when a program is being built, one has to take the good with the bad.  Along with the three straight bowl wins, the three straight victories over Louisville, and the wins over No. 1 LSU and Georgia, goes the lopsided losses to Florida the last two years, and UK's inability to beat Steve Spurrier or Tennessee.  Not unlike grieving, building something worth following is a process.  And in UK's case, a process not yet complete. 

Areas of Need

With games coming up against Alabama, South Carolina and an improved Auburn team, Kentucky is staring this season's crossroad squarely in the eyes.  Kentucky needs to win at least two of those games, and in order for that need to be filled, the 'Cats must show improvement in the following areas:

Rush Defense -- U of L's Victor Anderson ran 19 times for 110 yards, a 5.8 yards per carry average.  Florida's stable of backs rushed for an astounding 362 yards on 52 rushing attempts (7.0 ypc).

Penalties -- In UK's last two games they have committed 17 penalties for 164 yards.  Many of those penalties were drive-killers for the Kentucky offense, or drive-sustainers for the opponent.

Opponents Quarterback Play -- U of L's Justin Burke, and Florida's Tim Tebow, along with Tebow's backup, John Brantley, combined to throw for 378 yards on 44 passes.  That's an 8.6 yards gained per pass attempt, and an even more disturbing 15.8 yards per pass completion. 

UK's Yards Per Completion -- Kentucky's Mike Hartline has completed 33 passes over the last two games, for a total of 263 yards.  That equates to 7.9 yards per completion.  Hartline has had a couple of 20 + yard completions wiped out by penalties, but in order for UK's passing game to be taken seriously, the completion average needs to be in double-digits.  On a related note; Florida executed six pass breakups and two interceptions on only 28 UK passes.  Eight pass interruptions are a function of throwing into heavy coverage, something Hartline has to get under control. 

Florida's Average Gain Per Play -- The Gators ran 68 plays for a total of 495 yards, an average of 7.3 yards per play.  That's a video game average, not real life, or at least it shouldn't be.  This total tells the tale of UK's defensive line's ineffectiveness versus the Gators.

Giving Up Big Plays on Third & Long -- Third & Long = 3rd Down and at least five yards to go: Versus U of L, Kentucky allowed the following 3rd & Long[s] to be converted into first downs -- 3rd & 6 - 15 yard completion; 3rd & 8 -- 10 yard completion; 3rd & 9 - Pass interference against UK; 3rd & 14 -- 16 yard completion; 3rd & 7 -- 21 yard completion.  Overall, Louisville was 9-17 in third down conversions.

Against Florida, UK allowed the following 3rd & Long[s] to be converted into first downs -- 3rd & 5 - 30-yard rush; 3rd & 7 - 11-yard rush.  Florida was a much more acceptable 5-13 in third down conversions.

Average Opponents Starting Field Position -- Florida and Louisville had the tremendous advantage of beginning their drives (on average) from their own 38 yard line (UF) and 41 yard line (U of L), with seven of Florida's drives beginning on the UK 36, UK 23, UF 42, UK 46, UK 49, UK 8 and Florida 40.  It matters not who UK is playing; allowing the opponent such advantageous field  position will surely lead to a loss, much more than a win. 

UK's Rushing Offense -- Against Florida, UK's four primary ball-carriers performed less than admirably -- Derrick Locke - 13 carries for 36 yards; Alfonso Smith - Seven carries for 12 yards; Moncell Allen - Three carries for 28 yards (not bad "Turtle"); and John Conner - 2 carries for 7 yards.

That's 25 carries for only 83 yards (3.3 ypc).  Perhaps no stat is as telling -- Kentucky absolutely must improve this statistic if they harbor hopes of competing with anyone on their SEC slate.

UK's Offensive (pun intended) First Down Performance -- Of 27 first down plays against Florida, UK gained a TOTAL of 54 yards.  The carnage looked like this: Five-yard rush (offset by an illegal motion penalty); false start; nine yard sack; Incompletion; three-yard rush; incompletion; three-yard rush; five-yard rush; two-yard rush; Zero gain rush (illegal formation = - five-yards); three-yard rush; five-yard rush; nine-yard completion; 21-yard completion (offset by a pass interference penalty= - 12 yards); four-yard rush (on 1st & 22); incompletion; zero gain rush; five-yard rush; minus eight-yard rush; 20-yard rush; two-yard rush; interception; 15-yard completion; six-yard rush; incompletion; six-yard rush; incompletion.

Putting UK's offense in 2nd (& 3rd) and Long, is not a recipe for winning over fans, and influencing poll voters.  Now, keeping in mind that the Gators are one of the elite defensive teams in the nation; UK still must improve this statistic to keep from being consistently predictable within the parameters of the offense.

A Sea of Blue Announcement

If you haven't already read Tru's announcement about the Wildcat Tip-Off preseason UK basketball magazine, here's a link to the post.

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!