There’s disappointing losses, and then there are the type of losses, like Saturday night, that make you wish for cryogenic sleep technology. Late in the fourth quarter against Southern Mississippi, it would have been nice to climb into a form-fitting gel tube, set the timer for “Whenever Kentucky football stops making me cope by shotgunning bourbon and Häggen-Dazs”, and then brace for a liberating hibernation with fingers crossed.
Saturday night was a complete disaster. The Donner Party would look at Saturday’s game with sympathetic eyes. Little seems to have changed.
The defense continues to be bad against the run. The offense - which only managed 16 plays in the second half - sputtered throughout though big plays in the first half hid deficiencies. Under the radar is the amount of pressure Southern Miss. delivered in the first half - a very troublesome sign.
Drew Barker mitigated a lot of the first half pass rush by brilliant individual effort coupled with throwing the ball away. There were obvious questions about the offensive line, but the interior of the line did not looked improve from 2015.
But the single biggest issue wasn’t one of scheme or personnel. There continues to be a lack of mental toughness when faced with adversity. Southern Miss is a program that won one game in 2013, three games in 2014, but won nine games last season. Their group of seniors experienced turnaround success which helps mental toughness. They didn’t see being down 35-10 as a reason to stop battling. Their hard work paid off.
Why is mental toughness still an issue for this team in 2016? In 2014, it was also an infuriating issue. Very little has changed. That’s the biggest gut punch of all.
Last Bit of Pathos Before Moving On...
The SEC East is bad, and Mississippi State had the worst loss of any SEC team over the weekend, but it’s hard to see UK improving enough to beat those teams and make a bowl game. It would be somewhat poetic if UK’s season actually gets stronger as the season progresses. Maybe Saturday night’s game serves as a wake-up, but given historical precedent, probably not.
Going by S&P+, Stoops has won all the games he was supposed to win since arriving in Lexington, and had a 4-3 record in toss-up games heading into 2016. That’s not a bad record, but his teams have not punched above their weight unlike his teams at Arizona and Florida State when he served as defensive coordinator. Beating better teams is now needed for the 2016 team to make a bowl.
We could analyze and condemn players until we are blue in the face, but the real truth is the staff is failing them to varying degrees. It’s their responsibility to formulate game plans; their job to ensure players understand their roles; and their job to stave off personnel problems.
The staff is coaching the team they want, but they need to start coaching the team they have. They want tough-minded, disciplined, and athletically elite professionals that laugh at adversity. That’s not what they have broadly speaking, and it’s their fault for not adapting to the stark reality in order to extract success.
The Two Swing Plays...
A detailed breakdown of a game best forgotten is likely not in anyone’s interest, so instead let’s focus on two small factors that played big roles. The first factor is two plays that contributed to a 14 point swing.
The first breakdown comes at the end of the first half. UK is up 35-10 with 26 seconds left in the second quarter. Nick Mullens takes advantage of a blown coverage and connects with Isiah Jones for a 71 yard touchdown pass bringing the Golden Eagles to within 17 points and providing momentum heading into the locker room.
Blown coverages don’t happen to good teams in those moments. The boot they have on their opponents neck gets heavier - not lighter.
The other seven points came early in the third quarter. On Southern Miss.’ third play, around the 14:00 minute mark of the third quarter, Mullens fired the ball directly at safety Blake McClain’s chest.
McClain, possibly surprised by how easy interceptions can be after his first half tip drill pick, inexplicably drops a ball he catches nine times out of ten. Southern Miss. would go on to score a touchdown that drive, thanks in part to later UK defensive errors, and pull within 11 points.
Momentum meet shift.
The dirty little not-so-secret fact of the game is that Southern Miss.’ offense was doing anything it wanted in the first half as much as the second half. It was the turnovers that stopped their drives, and with one or two exceptions, not UK’s defense.
UK needed that 14 point cushion. The ‘Cats may have still lost, but Southern Miss. would have had a much harder time climbing back from a 25 point deficit with two fewer scoring possessions.
The Outside Linebackers...
The second factor worth keying on, as it contributed to Southern Miss.’ over 200 yards rushing, was the play of the outside linebackers. They were failing early in the game, before depth could be used as an excuse, making their play arguably more concerning than the rest of the front seven.
Kobie Walker had a particularly bad game. He had a horse collar and pass interference penalties that extended two different drives after getting beat, but he regularly lost contain. Denzil Ware and Josh Allen fared little better.
Look no further than Southern Miss.’ first touchdown. On 2nd-and-7, they motion into a Wildcat and run a Jet sweep to the wide side of the field.
The red box highlights Allen losing control of his outside shoulder, and with that, containment. Soon after this moment, he would get pancake blocked. At all costs, an outside linebacker must keep his outside shoulder free and maintain leverage, forcing the running back towards the inside and into the teeth of the defense.
Safety Mike Edwards is also captured in the box. He took a terrible angle and was caught in the middle of the quagmire. Ito Smith scored an easy touchdown, and Shannon Dawson decided to go back to the well some more.
After trying several 3 and 4-Wide sets towards the end of the first quarter without success, Dawson adjusted to running more sweeps. With 3:57 left in the first quarter, on 1st-and-10, Dawson again ran a Jet sweep to the field side:
Walker is in the red box, and here he’s not in bad shape, but the play will end with him being pancaked like Allen before. Courtney Love (blue box) is maintaining his run fit in case Smith decides to cut back into the defense, and Baity (yellow) will make a good play beating his block and forcing the back out of bounds.
This sweep was played pretty well, yet it’s troubling to see the outside linebacker get handled so easily. This wasn’t even from a pulling linemen, and a harbinger for things to come as other positions did not consistently maintain their run fits or form tackle. Sometimes the outside linebacker will have to make the play on his own, and compensate for the other’s miscues.
Exactly two plays later, on 3rd-and-3, Southern Miss would again run another Jet sweep to the field side when they needed a first down:
Here, Walker can be seen chasing Smith because he has lost contain. This would happen several other times over the course of the game, and on some occasions inside linebacker Jordan Jones would make Smith’s play for him, but not this time. Courtney Love, number 51, has also taken a poor angle in pursuit of the ball. He’s not catching a faster Smith at that trajectory.
You probably get the idea by this point. This is a relatively easy play to defend, and yet UK’s outside linebackers regularly failed to accomplish doing so on Saturday night. This play kept the Golden Eagles’ drives alive in the first half and third quarter, and aided in wearing down the defense. By the fourth quarter, Southern Miss. had soften up the defense to run on the inside, thanks in part to the outside sweeps.
This deficiency has been recorded, is in the Cloud, and now accessible to UK’s future opponents. Florida will pull guards and tackles, not smaller H-backs, against UK’s outside linebackers next week. They’ll want their own shot at pancake blocks.