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Wildcats’ season has once again been saved: Why they still have a lot to play for

This win, like Mississippi State, kept the team intact.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Missouri William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

A summary of the 2022 Kentucky Wildcats football season thus far at the 75% mark:

The Cats came in with more hype than ever before: Will Levis at QB, Rodriguez taking handoffs in the backfield after Game 4, an unyielding defense, star receivers, veteran kickers and punters—how could you not label them as serious SEC contenders given what they were returning from a 10-3 team the season prior?

Four games in the ‘Cats were unbeaten, winning three gimme-games but also scoring an awesome road win over #12 Florida just after the Gators took down Pac-12 favorite Utah seven days earlier. As expected, the team was a beast with a fearsome defense and the ability to make SportsCenter Top 10 touchdown passes in the blink of an eye, but not everything carried over from the previous year—four games in the O-line was bad. Like, really bad.

And it turns out that the O-line is the glue that holds your entire offense together, because in all nine games this season they’ve been held back from Tennessee-like numbers by this part of the depth chart not being up to snuff.

In Game 5 against Ole Miss, offensive line issues caused them to miss field goals, extra points, botch a punt-snap for a safety, and get strip-sacked for the game-losing fumble, not to mention get the star QB knocked out for the South Carolina game and leave the team helpless to the Gamecocks. They did improve for the Mississippi State game—the team’s best performance since the Florida win, but was just not powerful enough to keep up with Tennessee in a shootout (though even Alabama came up short against that, folks). Heading into Saturday’s game against Missouri, Kentucky had been battered, bruised, injured, and the glue that held their entire offense together—the Big Blue Wall—was hanging together each week by a thread, bleeding points to the other teams each week in the forms of bad snaps or blocks for missed extra points, botched snaps for safeties, sacks for fumbles, etc. But Saturday’s game they and the entire team did something spectacular that I’m celebrating.

Let me sum up what I’m trying to say: UK’s played imperfect football in nine straight games so far with stellar defense, stellar Will Levis & Chris Rodriguez & Dane Key offense, but horrible offensive line snapping & blocking, which has negated a lot of the stellar offense but not completely wrecked it.

The O-line played well in the nonconference, decent in the Florida game, horrible in the Ole Miss game, didn’t factor much into the South Carolina game because the offense was forced to become predictable and one-dimensional, well in the Mississippi State game, and was doing pretty good against Tennessee other than the fact that Kentucky with them could only score once every seven minutes instead of every 45 seconds, only one TD every three drives instead of one every drive, and all-in-all just could not keep up with the Vols like in last year’s 45-42 game. They’ve been good enough for UK to only blow it once—Ole Miss.

The other two losses were honestly out of UK’s hands in most ways (other than the fact that Levis might’ve not gotten hurt if they protected him better the week before). But against the five other teams UK played winning football and got the job done—not prettily except for Youngstown State but got it done. Doing it against Mississippi State really saved the season because it showed that UK was still at least as good as they were in Week 2 in The Swamp.

Then came this Saturday: another season-on-the-brink game, because by losing the ‘Cats would definitely show that the team that beat Florida and Mississippi State was broken. Was the offense-defense-O-line combination they rolled out in Colombia going to be able to do what it did in Gainesville and Lexington? After four quarters of nerve-wracking football, the answer was yes, with the most crucial contribution being made by punter Colin Goodfellow.

Some fans might be looking at the final three games and not think that the ‘Cats have much left to play for, since Vandy and Louisville are expected wins and Georgia is, let’s face it, an expected loss.

But Vandy and Louisville are only expected wins when the UK that’s playing them is the UK that beat Florida, Mississippi State, and now Missouri. I know we are fans with expectations, but we can’t be ungrateful or greedy. Cheer for the 2022 version of the ‘Cats even if coming into the season we thought that they’d have the same dominant O-line they’ve always had, and cheer for the version that is working really, really hard every week to perform on the field for victories, which have come in Gainesville by double digits, against the Bulldogs for the fourth-straight time facing them in Lexington, and in Colombia by fighting when injuries were piling up and morale was low for the seventh Tigers win in eight years.

These things didn’t happen before Mark Stoops except by chance or lightning in bottles, so be glad for it and root with all your usual fervor against Vandy, Georgia, and Louisville because losses to the Commodores or the Cards will demote the team to a much lower plane and that would really stink, but wins would send a message to the rest of the FBS that the same team that won by double-digits in The Swamp is coming for their fifth straight bowl win and against a Florida-caliber team too.

And if they can do that, that’s a pretty darn good Kentucky Wildcats team whose season should not be labeled “a disappointment.”