After the Kentucky Wildcats' loss to the Florida Gators, as I traveled the 3.4 miles from the parking garage to just outside Lexington, thanks to the city's new traffic plan I had one hour and 40 minutes to contemplate what I had just seen.
Overall, I love where we are. We have a burgeoning young defense, we have playmakers everywhere we look, and we have some of the best fans in the nation. Kentucky is poised for a bowl game this season and we are right where 99.9% of people HOPED we would be after three games.
There is one tough realization that I have come to and I think it is a genuine concern for this team and will be the difference in UK going 5-7 or 7-5. The realization is that we do not have good enough quarterback play to take a next step... and we have not had it for some time.
Before I get into this, I am not calling for Patrick Towles to be benched; I am not throwing the kid under the bus for negativity's sake. I am going to point out some truths and some opinions based on repeated performance.
A TALE OF TWO QUARTERBACKS
Kentucky started out 5-1 in 2014, but since that point, the ‘Cats have gone 2-7. It is also since that 5-1 start that Patrick Towles has seemingly regressed and produced less and less. In Towles' first six games, he had a stat line of the below:
Towles came out strong and seemed to be progressing toward an All-SEC caliber season. As we all know, the schedule got harder and we lost six in a row. This is also when Towles started to struggle mightily with production and efficiency.
As you will see below, Towles only broke 200 yards once the rest of the season and threw only four touchdowns over those six games to go with five interceptions.
As you can see, it has been a mediocre nine-game stretch for Towles.
- He has more Interceptions than Touchdowns (went from 2.5 to 1 ratio to 0.67 to 1)
- He is barely breaking 50% pass completion (down from 62.5%)
- He is averaging less than 200 yards per game (down 62 yards per game)
Those are the cold, hard facts... Keep in mind that the entire time Towles has been under center, we have supposedly been an Air Raid offense.
THE JUNIOR JUMP
There is also the school of thought that a Quarterback makes that jump in their junior season. I went back and looked at Andre Woodson's first three games of his junior season just to see if he was similar. Kentucky also was 2-1; they had also played two solid teams and one scheduled win.
If Towles is going to make that jump, he is 25% through his opportunity to make it happen. As I mentioned in the beginning, I am not saying he cannot get the job done for us, I am not saying he should be benched... but I am saying UK needs to explore what it has in Drew Barker.
REFUTING A REASON NOT TO CHANGE
One of the main reasons you will hear that Drew Barker has not gotten any clock is that Towles must be the better player in practice. My take on that is I bet he is... Towles is a gifted talent with every NFL tick mark you can have. He is tall, he is strong, he is mobile, and he has a cannon.
My guess is if you watched every UK practice, you would probably give the nod to Towles more often than not. My response to that is that at some point, the game performance of Towles and the expected game performance of Barker have to come to a head.
Some guys perform better when the lights come on and exceed their practice performance. Some players dominate practice, but have their flaws exposed under the lights. In Baseball, that guy is a batting practice hero; in Basketball, that guy is the Derek Willis type.
We all have no idea what Barker will do in a game, but we know what we have had in the last nine. My question to you is this, do you think Barker could have gone 2-7 and thrown for more interceptions than touchdowns while barely completing 50% of his passes... because that is what we got in those games.
NOT TOWLES FAULT?
There is also the thought that it is not Towles fault when the receivers are dropping the ball and the line is not blocking for him.
There is a modicum of truth to this reason, but it does not hold water over time. When you have to make reasons and excuses for your quarterback, you have already lost. The best QBs overcome those struggles; did we have the best linemen and receivers during Couch, Lorenzen, and Woodson's time? In addition, how often did receivers just drop passes for those three?
I want to preface this next part by saying I am not excusing Dorian Baker and Jeff Badet and crew for their drops of Towles passes. Those players have to step up and do their job to help Towles.
One thing I will add in that arena though, how often do you see the players around a quarterback lift their game because the QB is not only playing at a high level but also demanding everyone to play at a high level? It is no coincidence that during a no-hitter or perfect game in baseball, the defense behind that pitcher turns into gold glovers.
WHAT IS THE SOLUTION
This is the million-dollar question, and the tough answer is that nobody knows the perfect solution. Some people say give Drew Barker a half against Eastern Kentucky and see what he does. I do not think that is a good solution, what exactly would we learn about him if he torches a bunch of players that are not even as good as the players he practices against?
Some fans are calling for Towles to be benched immediately... this is overkill and knee jerk. In a perfect world, Towles comes out Saturday, we torch Missouri, he is on track, and we are steamrolling to 4-1 going into the Auburn game.
I just do not think that is going to happen, though, I would like to see Towles start, but we get Barker some work against a good SEC defense in Missouri. Whether that means planned series' for Barker or a short leash for Towles is another discussion.
The way that would look for me is at the first sign of trouble (early interception, continued inaccurate passing, bad decisions) Barker gets the call until he has his own struggles. Then for the EKU game Barker gets extended time on the field and we roll into the Auburn game 4-1 and we have a very strong idea of who truly is the leader of this team.
Again, I really like Patrick Towles; I think he could be a wonderful face of the program. He has NFL attributes, he is a Kentucky boy who had a dream to be the QB of this university, he is by all accounts a model student and citizen, and he is simply a good kid you want to root for.
I doubt anyone on this team wants it more than Patrick does, but there is just something missing. I do not know if Drew Barker has that missing component, but I want to find out.
The most popular guy on a football team is the backup QB. There are many people calling to see Barker from here on out, I think that is extreme. However, I do think it is time to get him some meaningful minutes and see exactly what we have with the kid.
Coach Mark Stoops lost an Air Raid offensive coordinator in Neal Brown; he replaced him with an Air Raid offensive coordinator in Shannon Dawson. Kentucky football's offense has been the antithesis of an Air Raid offense for what seems like a months worth of Saturdays.
Stoops and Dawson have to figure out how to get our offense on track, whether that is an adjustment in offensive gameplan (not running an inverted wishbone seemingly 70% of the time) or an adjustment in the guy under center is up to them.
Kentucky wants to be a big boy football program, making tough calls and holding players accountable to a gold standard is part of that maturation of a program. Mark Stoops has done one helluva job in every facet of this job so far and I think he will handle this with the same quality as he has handled everything thus far.