The mental deflation from the gut-wrenching 28-27 loss to the Florida Gators is still lingering for many fans of the Kentucky Wildcats. On the UK Postgame show on ESPN 680, my co-host Lachlan McLean asked me which was worse: losing to Florida in a one point collapse or being blown-out like in 2015.
At the time, I answered being blown-out. In a blowout I never have any illusions of winning and I can come to terms with the loss as the game progresses. There’s not much worse in sports than believing that your team is going to win and then having the rug yanked out from under you. Especially if it’s been done multiple times over the course of 31 straight years.
But I’ve had time to think about it over the course of the rest of the weekend and I have come to a different conclusion. I’d rather lose a close game because that tells me that this Kentucky team is closer to being a contender in the SEC that it has in decades.
Three out of the last four years of playing Florida have ended in nail biting fashion. Last season was an anomaly compared to the other recent examples.
As bad as it felt on Saturday, there are some positives to glean from the loss.
Stephen Johnson is Getting Better in Every Game
I haven’t trusted a quarterback at Kentucky as much as I trust Stephen Johnson since Andre Woodson. Johnson once again proved he is more than up to the challenge on Saturday. He hit eight different players with passes, threw three beautiful touchdowns, and put the ‘Cats in position to win the game in the waning seconds.
His short passing is significantly improved as well as is his accuracy. He’s had only one turnover this season. The coaching staff cannot ask much more from the quarterback position. Johnson looked extremely good against Florida.
New Options on Offense
Sihiem King and Lynn Bowden added more wrinkles to the offense on Saturday.
King is emerging as the lightning option to Benny Snell’s thunder. This is imperative as Snell has already carried the ball a significant amount in the first four games of the season.
Lynn Bowden finally showed what he can do as a football player. He can pass out of the Wildcat which makes that formation dangerous once again (I still can’t figure out why he wasn’t in it more) and he also showed he can run out of it effectively. As games progress we will see more of Bowden.
Everything Bad that Happened Can be Fixed
Kentucky lost the game not because they couldn’t hang with Florida, it’s because they made blunders. Multiple, bad, inexcusable blunders that need to be corrected ASAP.
Mark Stoops took the blame for the loss as well as he should have. There are no excuses for leaving a wide receiver uncovered coming out of a time out twice in the same game.
Clock management was again an issue late. Stoops had three options as Florida was driving down the field as the clock winded down in the fourth quarter:
- Trust your defense will stop them
- Use some timeouts to try and conserve as much clock as you can to give your team as much time as you can to score
- Let Florida score once they get into the redzone, get the ball back with your time outs intact as well as a healthy clock, and work from there
Stoops is a guy that’s going to trust his defense, but it was clear at the time that the defense was gassed due to lack of offensive ball movement and conservative playcalling. It’s against the fiber of Stoops’ being to let a team score, but in that situation when you know your defense is completely gassed, it may have been the correct play.
Penalties can be fixed, blown assignments can be fixed, play calling can be fixed, and coaching blunders can be fixed. Nothing here indicates complete collapse going forward. Kentucky has the players in place to compete in and win every game left on the schedule.
As much as what transpired on Saturday hurt, all is not lost. The next two weeks for Kentucky should do wonders for their confidence and the confidence of the fans.
This Saturday they will take on an Eastern Michigan team that they should handle with relative ease and a Missouri team that looks like the worst team out of all of the Power 5 conferences.
As long as nothing dramatic happens the Wildcats will go into the by week with a 5-1 record with the only blemish being a one point loss against a ranked opponent. There will be more chances to beat ranked teams as it seems likely that Mississippi State, Georgia, and Louisville will remain in the top 25 for the rest of the season.
There isn’t a game left on the schedule that I consider an outright loss. The closest one to that may be at Georgia, but the rest of them are winnable.
The thing about being a fan is we have to focus on every loss for an entire week. It’s hard to move past it because all we have to go by is the immediate past. As a fan base, Big Blue Nation is inclined to linger on pessimism in regards to football.
But the players and the coaches have no choice but to look forward to the next game. Eastern Michigan doesn’t care what happened against Florida; they’re going to want to come in and beat the ‘Cats no matter what.
The players and the coaches have the next challenge ahead of them. Mark Stoops is in a position where he has to look back at the loss and answer some hard questions. But that’s the responsibility of the head coach. He has to balance that along with making sure his team is prepared for Saturday.
Ultimately this lies on Stoops whether or not things get right. He’s taken the first step in the right direction by accepting blame for the loss. Next is to get his team’s mentality in the right space for the upcoming game. Then he must execute on the field along with his players and continue to win.
There’s no way around it if he wants the fans to look past Saturday and focus on the future.