Trying to figure out just where this Kentucky football team stands right now made me think of Joe B. Hall.
No, not the sharp-witted, silver-tongued Bluegrass entry in the “Joe B. and Denny Show” exacta. Rather, the guy who coached the basketball Wildcats not a few seasons ago.
Hall once recruited a player named Dwight Anderson. You may remember him, if at all, as “The Blur,” so nicknamed by the legendary Cawood Ledford. His incredible speed and quickness were something to behold, and made him incredibly difficult to guard in the paint, believe it or not. Opposing teams tried to check him with larger inside players, who were helpless against his skills.
But Anderson also had a decent jump shot, and during one stretch of his abbreviated season at Kentucky (he later was dismissed from the team for disciplinary reasons), he struggled with it. His coach had a proven method Joe B. employed when shooters couldn’t find their respective marks.
Hall had Anderson move out to around 30 feet from the basket. He reasoned that for anyone to hit from that range, he had to exaggerate his shooting motion. Therefore, any flaws in that motion would be exaggerated, too, and thus, easier to spot and correct.
In fact, a spell of long-range bombing in practice helped Anderson re-discover his jumper. After nailing a long one during his next game, he grinned at Joe B. as he ran back down the floor. The future talk-show host winked at him.
Saturday’s loss to South Carolina was nothing to wink at. The Wildcats failed to protect their home turf against a team they haven’t beaten now in the last nine tries. But it could be the best USC squad Kentucky has faced in a long time. The Gamecocks defense saw to that.
It made the afternoon miserable for the UK offense. There was precious little running room, and a dearth of time to throw for quarterback Mike Hartline. And when his passes weren’t soaring over his receivers’ heads, they were bouncing off their hands. When Dicky Lyons, Jr., went down late in the first half with what would be a season-ending knee injury, so did any chance the Wildcats had of probing the SC pass defense.
That gave Carolina free reign to pack the “box,” walking seven or eight defenders to within three yards of the line of scrimmage – all of them, it seemed, quicker and stronger than the next. It was the primary reason the Cats moved the chains just ONCE on third down, in 16 tries.
Meanwhile, the defense was fighting to hold back the Gamecock offense, which benefitted from a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown early in the game that had a long-lasting impact.
So let’s recap: An ineffective passing game and a non-existent run game. Sound familiar?
South Carolina’s smothering defense basically moved the UK offense back to around 30 feet from the basket. It exaggerated Kentucky’s offensive problems, but also may have over-exaggerated a possible solution – a true freshman who now will be manning three positions.
With Lyons sidelined for the season, Randall Cobb now becomes Kentucky’s top wide receiver. And with both Lyons and Demoreo Ford sidelined (Ford’s sprained shoulder likely will cause him to miss the Arkansas game), he’s the top punt returner as well. The debate is listing heavily toward him being the Wildcats’ best quarterback, as well.
The time he spent on the sideline with a high-ankle sprain has only caused his legend to grow. Wildcat fans, furious with the sub-par play of Hartline against USC, think fondly of the spark Cobb generated in the first half of the Norfolk State game. But Rich Brooks is thinking beyond those two entertaining quarters. He has to.
Brooks also remembers the second half of the NSU game, which saw Cobb turn the ball over twice, and make other mistakes not uncommon for a true freshman playing the most important position in all of team sports. And he also knows the rookie from Knoxville had seen precious little practice time at quarterback to risk inserting him into the South Carolina game, against one of (if not THE) best defense the SEC has to offer.
Given Hartline’s gradual improvement this year, Brooks reasoned, along with Cobb’s limited time in practice, Kentucky’s more pressing need for Cobb’s services was at the receiver spot where, other than Lyons, the Wildcats have yet to find a playmaker. And by halftime, Brooks knew Lyons was not available.
So, minus a play that has Randall Cobb dropping back, maybe sliding to his left (his throwing side), glancing down the field and seeing young Randall Cobb running free behind the secondary, the Cats are stuck. Their best athlete has too much work to do. And he’s not getting enough support, at least, not on offense.
Neither, for that matter, is Hartline. The first-year starter picked the worst time to play his worst game. It’s true, his handoffs rarely lead to more than a one- or two-yard carry by one of four talented tailbacks. And yes, other than Lyons and another true freshman, Aaron Boyd, it seems the rest of the wideouts have more drops than catches. Hartline has had success throwing to tight ends T.C. Drake and Maurice Grinter, but the speedy SC linebackers hounded them all day long.
But Hartline didn’t help himself at all last Saturday, constantly missing open receivers or sending his throws sailing over their heads.
Arkansas is up next on the Big Blue worksheet. The Razorbacks aren’t nearly as talented as the Gamecocks; at least, not on defense. And with another week of practice, perhaps Cobb will beat out Hartline. First-half Cobb, not second-half Cobb.
But know this: He’s still hurting. The high-ankle sprain will bother him for the rest of the season. And now, Brooks says, Cobb’s OTHER ankle is throbbing. He turned it during the USC game. Plus, he has a sore non-throwing shoulder.
“He’s more beat-up than he’s ever been in his life,” Brooks said. “Welcome to the SEC.”
The Wildcats were hoping to welcome themselves to the SEC championship game. That’s unlikely now, but they can still wrap their arms around a third consecutive bowl bid. But in order to get there, they MUST resume defense of their home turf, starting Saturday with the Hogs.
No matter who’s getting the most snaps at quarterback.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m.ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)