(HATTIESBURG, MS) Kentucky’s victory over Southern Mississippi on a sweltering Saturday afternoon hangs like a piece of modern art - either a vision of joy or an ugly, wide splotch on the wall. As for noted football critic Mark Stoops: “It was a thing of beauty to me.”
There might not be a groundswell of support among members of the Big Blue Nation when it comes to his take on the esoteric nature of the game, but as for the result – they’ll take it.
Kentucky’s defense, so porous against the run last year, stoned Southern Miss tailback Ito Smith, who slashed and gashed the Wildcats in 2016. Just as impressively, the Golden Eagles rarely gave UK’s Benny Snell much room to roam.
It was as though both teams had pulled up chairs at one of the gambling tables at a nearby casino, bought a fat stack of chips and then pushed them all to the middle of the table, saying, “There will be no running today.”
Kentucky’s effort against Smith was remarkable. The Cats held him to a net 37 yards on 16 carries, his longest run only six yards. Snell found a little more room to run but still managed only 67 yards on 20 carries.
Fans weighed in on social media, as is their wont, when it came to play-calling, particularly runs from the Wildcat formation. The Golden Eagles looked as though they had spent all of summer camp divining ways to shut it down. And still, UK OC Eddie Gran kept calling for it, including a crucial 3rd-and-1 call in the third quarter, the Wildcats on their own 39 clinging to a 14-10 lead.
Out of the Wildcat, it was Sihiem King, not Snell, taking the snap and not even making it back to the line of scrimmage. “I probably got a little bit too stubborn, probably could’ve opened it up a little bit,” Gran told reporters after the game.
You are correct, sir.
Fortunately, the Kentucky defense stopped USM on downs on the following possession, thwarting a fake punt near midfield. That’s the sort of action that makes a former defensive coordinator smile, especially when your offense is sputtering so acutely that it managed only 254 yards in 55 plays.
“That shows a lot of character, a lot of guts, a lot of determination from that football team to come out and win that game when you’re not playing your best football,” Stoops said. “Certainly not on the offensive side of the ball. I’m not worried. I know we’ll get better.”
And he said this on his way out the door, going home with a victory in hand. Exactly half the coaches in action on this opening Saturday would have exchanged places with him, and gladly.
Think about Tom Herman. In his first game as Texas head coach, the Longhorns lost – at home – to a Maryland team picked to finish sixth in its division in the Big 10.
North Carolina let California come to Chapel Hill and escape with a victory. Liberty stunned Baylor in Waco. And former Louisville Cardinal Jeff Brohm, in his first game as Purdue head coach, had his alma mater on the ropes in West Lafayette, but let U of L escape with a win.
Stoops can see the beauty in what some might call a homely win. He knows a lot of Big Blue fans might not be able get past the ugliness. Of course, there are people who think Cindy Crawford’s beauty mark is nothing more than an overgrown zit.
“I know a lot of people are gonna have their opinions,” Stoops said as his players celebrated, “but I loved it."
And why not? After blowing a big lead and losing to the same team in Lexington last year, Stoops and his players were heading for the airport – with a road victory in hand, undefeated after their first game.
In college football, that’s not just a thing of beauty – that’s gorgeous.