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Kentucky Football: Takeaways from a gut-wrenching loss to Southern Miss

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

On the opening drive of their 2016 Football season the Kentucky Wildcats got a dropped pass from C.J. Conrad, allowed Jojo Kemp to get tackled in the backfield, and watched Drew Barker throw a 4 yard pass when 12 were needed. Grant McKinniss - clearly understanding the importance of narrative progression - finished off the possession by getting his punt blocked. Last year Southern Miss was a high-flying offense led by their 4,000 yard/35 touchdown QB Nick Mullens, so of course they proceeded to run the ball six times on seven snaps to take a 7-0 lead. Across the Commonwealth, palms hit faces.

Life got better for a time as the Wildcats rattled off three straight touchdown passes in the first quarter to take a 21-7 lead that eventually grew to as large as 35-10 with less than a minute to play in the half. Then all the familiar bugaboos from the last two years reappeared, and Southern Miss scored the final 34 points of the game.

Here are a few observations from the contest.

Drew Barker is improved

Let’s start with some good. Drew Barker was terrific in the first half, hitting receivers in stride, using his feet to escape defenders, and making good decisions of when to throw the ball to a teammate and when to throw it away. He wasn’t perfect - his third touchdown pass was preceded by an underthrown ball to Jeff Badet that would have been intercepted in the endzone had Badet not quickly switched to Safety Mode - but overall he did everything necessary to lead the offense to a big half.

J.D. Harmon? More like J.D. Harm‘Em, amiright?

The senior from Paducah had a whale of a game, knocking Eagle returners around on kickoffs and taking balls away from Eagle receivers on defense. His first interception was particularly impressive, taking the ball away with one hand. Like the rest of the team, most of his second half is better left forgotten to the mists of time, but the good is something to build on for the rest of the year.

The defense looked pretty good (when they were rested)

For most of the first half, the Kentucky defense dominated Nick Mullens. The Wildcats got constant pressure on the star quarterback, resulting in sacks, hits and an intentional grounding call. Their play against the run was much more of a toss-up, but they still managed to scuttle running plays at an acceptable rate. Unfortunately they also fell asleep right at the end of the half, allowing a completely unacceptable 71-yard touchdown pass inside the final minute that fueled the Southern Miss comeback.

Halftime adjustments are still an Issue

Stop me if you've heard this before: The defense does solid work in the first half then gives up yards and points in buckets in the second half because the offense can't stay on the field. Actually, the offense didn't stay on the field much in the first half either, but that was because they scored quickly, so presumably the defense didn’t mind quite as much.

In any case, the Wildcat offense never made it back out of the locker room after halftime. It’s the nature of football that 11 players must be on the field at all times, which left Blake McClain and Crew to pick up the slack and granting Mullens and the rest of the Southern Miss offense the luxury of working against a tiring defense on a humid night.

This game sucks, but it’s still just one game

The Cats have issues, but so do most of their SEC opponents. Tennessee needed overtime to beat Appalachian State at home. Mississippi St didn’t need overtime to lose to South Alabama. The best that can be said of South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Missouri is that they are all schools that field teams that play football. The last two years we’ve seen UK jump out to exciting starts, only to watch them flounder as the weather turned cold. Maybe this is the year the Cats take their lumps early, be better for it, and close out the year with six (or more) wins.