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Mississippi State Bulldogs 45, Kentucky Wildcats 31: Postmortem

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The Wildcats gave the national #1 a football game yesterday, but they just didn't have enough to overcome Mississippi State.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday’s game against the Mississippi St. Bulldogs was a loss on the scoreboard. Coaches will contend that there are no moral victories, but when you are rebuilding a football team from the depths of futility, moral victories do exist in the larger context. We don’t have to like them, but playing highly-ranked teams well impresses not only fans of other teams, but also recruits who might be considering Kentucky. So whether you call it a "moral" victory or just a good competitive game, this was one of those rare circumstances where being competitive was enough for a "win," at some level.  But that will not remain true after this season.

The thing we should all be unhappy about, leaving aside the score, is that Kentucky legitimately had a chance to win this football game. What cost them the game, in the big picture, was a poor defensive effort stopping the run. Part of that was the reality that MSU has a great running attack, but Kentucky’s interior defensive line execution was generally poor. Also, the Wildcats did an extremely poor job of tackling, making many fundamental errors that are pointed out by coaches from middle school on.

It is for these reasons, the failure of fundamentals, that we should be less satisfied with the outcome than we otherwise might be, considering the level of the competition. No matter how good MSU’s running backs were (and they are plenty good), you can’t tackle them by throwing your body at them, or lowering your head and failing to wrap them up. These are basic football errors, and it seemed like many of Kentucky’s defensive players all decided to forget them at the same time.

I’ll leave it to Will, Greenwell, Hank and others to examine the technical issues with Kentucky’s game yesterday. I’m going to stick with general impressions, and if I wind up off the reservation, I’m sure that will be corrected by further analysis.

Team observations

Offense
  • The passing game was very sharp, but one can only imagine what would’ve happened if Kentucky hadn’t dropped about five passes. The Wildcats haven’t dropped that many up until now, but they made up for a bunch of them yesterday.

  • Pass protection for Towles was not good. He took six sacks, and while you can expect an increase in sacks against a good defensive team when you have to throw a lot to move the ball, six is too many.

  • Kentucky tied the turnover battle 1-1, but the one they lost cost them three points. The ‘Cats were lucky they didn’t lose another fumble on a Towles sack. Both teams fumbled four times, but the Wildcats couldn’t get any takeaways.

  • Kentucky averaged only 3.2 yards per rush. That’s really anemic, and but for Towles, it would’ve been even worse. 150 total yards rushing is just not enough, although it isn’t exactly horrible.

  • Both Kentucky lines, offense and defense, were over-matched yesterday.

  • Kentucky was 5 for 14 on third down conversions, 35%. That’s not awful, but it’s not exactly stellar.

  • UK averaged 9.1 yards per completion, and I’ll take that any day.

  • As you might expect, the offense was pass-heavy in this game, 44-32

  • Kentucky ran 76 plays, which is a step up. Time of possession was lopsided for Mississippi State 34:29 to 25:31, but that was more a function of how the teams played. MSU is more of a possession team, and Kentucky is more of a big-play team.

    The problem with this going forward is the pressure it puts on the defense. When the defense is out there that much, they get tired. At the same time, you love explosive plays. When UK gets some more depth on defense, it will really help our cause.

Defense
  • I know they were playing against a good offensive team, but giving up 349 yards on the ground (300+ two games in a row) is really problematic. UK has to find a way to bend but not break, and although they did that a couple of times, it wasn’t enough.

  • Missed tackles due to fundamental form errors were rampant in both the line and secondary yesterday. It was embarrassing.

  • I thought the pass defense played okay, although they started very slow.

  • UK’s pass rush was decent. Three sacks against a QB like Dak Prescott is pretty good. UK also got two QB hurries, one of which resulted in the interception.

  • Defensive backs have to do a better job of getting off blocks. That was a real problem yesterday.

Special teams
  • The punt coverage was solid. UK gave up two yards in punt return yardage. That’s a big improvement.

  • Landon Foster did a good job punting the ball with a 47.8 yard average. Stellar.

  • The kickoff team did fine up until the onside kick, where they completely failed to execute the thing. I don’t like Craig Naivar’s kicking formations, and that one backfired spectacularly when MSU took it in for a touchdown to put the game out of reach.

  • The punt return team was a mess, fumbling one out of bounds and putting UK in a big hole. The best the kickoff return team could do was an 18-yard return, the other three being shorter than that. That just stinks. How I miss Randall Cobb.

Individual

Offense
  • What can we say about Patrick Towles? He personally accounted for over 460 yards of Kentucky’s 504 total yards gained in the game. He passed for 390 and ran for a net of 76 yards. That’s one heck of a game, and if he can keep this up, there’s no telling how far Kentucky can get this season.

  • Ryan Timmons finally stepped up his game, right up until the fourth quarter where he dropped two straight passes. He did catch five passes for 114 yards.

  • Demarco Robinson played well, probably his best game as a Wildcat, if you forget about that fumble of a punt trying an ill-advised over-the-shoulder catch.

  • Javess Blue only caught two passes, but one of them was a long touchdown strike.

  • Blake Bone dropped almost as many passes as he caught.

  • Dorian Baker had a good game, made a couple of really good catches for short yardage.

  • Ronnie Shields made a big catch for a first down. I thought he played well overall.

Defense
  • Josh Forrest continues to impress. He wound up with 5 solo and 4 assists and an INT.

  • Both Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith were really good yesterday, both getting a sack and Bud getting two hurries. Dupree had 5 solo and 5 assists, and Z had 2 solo and six assists, including 2.5 TFL’s

  • Both Blake McClain and Fred Tiller broke up two passes apiece.

  • A.J. Stamps and Cody Quinn both had six tackles.

  • Jabari Johnson played a heck of a game, getting five tackles and 1.5 TFL’s.

Conclusion

One of the things we all pretty much agreed we wanted to see this season was this team be competitive in losses. So far, although the Wildcats have only lost three games so far, they were competitive in all but one of them — last weekend at LSU. I think we can say that the improvement on this team is evident, and marked.

Having said that, Kentucky is still not good enough to beat the #1 team in the nation, although I must confess we gave it a good go. I wish the defensive line were at least a little better, and special teams are driving me crazy, as they have given up three touchdowns in the last two games. Somehow we have to get that cleaned up.

Next week we go to Columbia, Missouri to face the Missouri Tigers, a team that drilled Kentucky last year in Commonwealth Stadium. But this is not last year’s Kentucky team, and Missouri looks like UK’s best remaining chance to get bowl eligible. Maty Mauk has been up and down lately, and although Missouri’s defense has been better at keeping points down than Mississippi State, their rushing defense is not as strong, while their passing defense is much better. Right now, only South Carolina’s rushing defense stinks worse than Kentucky’s, but UK's pass defense is third in the league.

But this is how life goes in the SEC. There are no easy games, only games that are slightly less difficult than others.