There will be a tendency this week to caution Kentucky fans not to “overreact.” Just one game, you know.
First of all, there’s no such thing in the sports fan spectrum of responses as overreactions (well, anything short of violent, of course). Being a sports fan is built on the very emotional apparatus that leads to reaction. Tell a Kentucky fan that the Wildcats lost, for the 31st straight year, to a team it could and should have beat, because of two egregious coaches’ errors, but then tell him or her not to overreact. I would suggest then to get out of the way. Not to get out of the way would qualify as a serious and foolish underreaction.
On Monday morning, the Louisville Courier-Journal dropped in on the Wildcats. The Courier-Journal usually only does that to offer some pallid sympathy, some snarky analysis, whether the football Cats are in the midst of a 2-10 season or the basketball cats have just lost to Wisconsin.
The Courier-Journal tries to portray itself as very much the hometown UK newspaper. But no, the Courier-Journal does not ride the Big Blue Bandwagon and drink with the fellas. It periodically reminds itself that there’s a Kentucky fan base in Louisville and the city’s biggest paper had better cover that team, as well. You know, the one that does not have a Heisman winner.
So there were two articles side by side on Monday morning. One, by the earnest young UK beat writer, urged the Kentucky fandom “to hang in there.” The other, by the more-removed, older columnist, took a more reprimanding approach to the mental clunkers that cost Kentucky the game.
And he wasn’t wrong, by the way. I don’t think anybody in this huge Blue Nation wants to hear “hang in there...we’re on the right path...we’ve got Eastern Michigan coming up.” Not this week.
You can excuse Mark Stoops, as we did Joker Phillips, for difficulty in getting the right level of athlete to Lexington. That was always the excuse. They’d rather go to Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, LSU.
But we have, we’ve convinced ourselves, this team of eager, young, bright young coaches who are absolutely going to get the best out of the talent they have, until that time when they can become competitive in the recruiting race.
Well, I would say they’ve approached that level of competitiveness. They do have a flock of fine young talent running around the school’s practice field. Recruiting is no longer the core issue. Now comes the coaching.
I have to say, I’ve not been terribly impressed with Mark Stoops overall. On the sideline, he always seems to be somewhat confused, distracted, or overwhelmed by all the things going on around him. I’m not saying he is overwhelmed. I’m saying that’s my impression.
Certainly not fair to compare his sideline behavior with the super-cool Nick Saban, the Jim McElwain who always seems to be finding something funny to smile about, or the Butch Jones who seems to want to chew metal because, I don’t know, the Volunteer mascot didn’t execute the cartwheel perfectly.
The rumpled, twitchy sideline Stoops may well have everything in hand. Why shouldn’t he? We were told he was one of the best defensive coaches in the country. He knows the game. He’s a Stoops, for chrissake.
That’s also what we’ve been led to believe about the zen-thinking, zen-talking Eddie Gran, who spouts calm homilies while his centers can’t snap the ball, while his offense can’t produce a couple of drives that would have kept the clock working.
Of course, neither of these two coaches allowed Kentucky’s defense to take the field with ten men.
Or, in fact, is that a too-easy conclusion at which to jump? Matt House runs the defense. And as a performing unit, it has gotten much better. Kudos to House. Everybody’s saying it.
But Stoops runs the defense on the field. That’s what we’ve been told for a year – not least when he very publicly took over the play-calling after the early disasters of 2016 and led the Cats to a bowl game. No reason to think that wouldn’t produce a series of improved seasons, better SEC East finishes, better bowl games in December. Maybe January.
Stoops took all the blame after the Florida game. I think it was the Herald-Leader that referred to him as “ashen.” Clearly, both gaps in the Kentucky defense on those two Florida touchdowns happened right in front of the Kentucky sideline (no, let me rephrase. A “gap” is when a defender is leaning the wrong way. This was an “evacuation.” There was nobody there. Players were running in the other direction, off the field).
Stoops said he couldn’t call a timeout. Didn’t have the time. I’ve seen coaches get a timeout after the snap if they acted loudly and confidently enough.
The players will rally around Stoops, as they should. They’ll rally around Nick Haynes, who got flagged for a hold because, really, some kind of hold on the line pretty much never, ever happens during a flying around of bodies and arms on a run up the middle. They’ll rally around Bunchy Stallings, because executing a center snap with 750 lbs of beef snarling at your shoulder is harder than it looks.
Those are plays that should be made, are made all the time, but can be bobbled and mishandled. I always thought that was what Monday-Friday was for, to minimize those bobbles and mishandles.
The Cats will probably end up with a good, respectable season – perhaps better than last. I think they’re good enough. If they can beat Tennessee and Vanderbilt (looking more likely) and maybe Georgia (looking less likely), they won’t win any divisions but they’ll put themselves squarely in place for a more-or-less respectable bowl appearance.
And, of course, if they beat Louisville, all bets could be off. Well, maybe not all bets. It’s a non-SEC game, of course. But what an end to the season! Again!
And maybe we’ll forget how a bunch of stupid mistakes, weeks and weeks ago in mid-September, drowned out fans’ hope for the 31st straight time. But I think Kentucky fans will keep less of an eye on the scoreboard these days, and more of an eye on what those leaders of this football team are seeing when they look out onto the field.