Arkansas rout of Cats looked painfully familiar

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - A Kentucky football team, on the road in the Southeastern Conference, overmatched and overwhelmed, powerless to stop its opponent or inflict any damage of its own – welcome to Fayetteville, Arkansas, last Saturday night.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” is what I’ve heard at least a dozen times since I returned.

I have. Been there, done that.

There were no lightning bolts, no driving rainstorms, but on a humid night six years ago in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a similar horror story played out.

Oh yes, something else was missing – television.

The UK-LSU game on Oct. 14, 2006, was not picked up by any national or regional TV network. Pay-per-view never has been a viable option in the Commonwealth; we tried it a few times but, even when it came to basketball, UK fans were loath to shell out the green to watch the Blue. There were complaints (a few), but when this one kicked off in Death Valley, nobody in Kentucky was watching.

And never was a stadium nickname more appropriate.

Kentucky was 3-3 on the season, coming in off another disappointing loss to South Carolina. The Tigers the week prior had lost at Florida, one of only two losses they suffered that season under second-year head coach Les Miles. And they took out their anger on the Wildcats.

In a beatdown as complete as any we would see in the Rich Brooks Era, LSU romped, 49-0. It left the Wildcats shaken, and it left Brooks pondering his future. He had spent most of the previous season on the same hot seat currently inhabited by his successor, Joker Phillips. And now, Brooks thought that the loss in Baton Rouge may have signaled the unofficial end of his run in Lexington.

In his biography of Brooks, Tom Leach wrote of how Brooks’ friend and confidant, Brett Setzer, heard the coach talk about finding a potential buyer for his house:

“He said, ‘I think I am going to be out of here (if we don’t win this next game). This is it.’ That was a pretty depressing moment,” Setzer said.

- “Rich Tradition”

On the long plane ride home, a UK freshman defensive end named Jeremy Jarmon (who had chosen the Wildcats over a number of other Division I schools) began to consider the possibility that he had made a mistake.

“I wondered,” Jarmon said recently, “if the SEC was for me.” And without saying a word to another player, Jarmon rested his head against the airplane window and went to sleep. It’s doubtful that it was peaceful slumber, but he’d already played through a nightmare.

As it turned out, Kentucky WAS the place for him. Jarmon went on to an All-SEC career and a stop in the NFL. But it was the kind of loss that likely made a lot of players and coaches take stock in themselves.

Just as the Hogs did last Saturday, LSU roared out of the gate, scoring on each of its first four possessions that night, bolting to a 28-0 lead with nine minutes still left to play in the second quarter. The fourth touchdown came on a 48-yard scoring strike by quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who would go on to be one of the biggest busts in NFL history.

UK crossed the 50-yard line just once in the first half, but Andre’ Woodson was sacked for a 10-yard loss, driving the Cats back onto their side of the field.

In the third quarter, with the LSU defensive starters still on the field (ahead 42-0), the Wildcats finally managed to put together a drive. Aided by two LSU penalties and a 36-yard pass from Woodson to Keenan Burton, the Wildcats pierced the red zone, eventually fighting their way to the Tigers’ nine-yard line. But Woodson’s third-down pass was picked off and LSU took over on its own two.

The Cats managed to force a three-and-out; LSU’s quarterback now was backup Matt Flynn, who later would become a teammate of UK punter Tim Masthay on the Green Bay Packers (they shared a Super Bowl championship run in 2010).

UK got the ball back on the LSU 47 and when Woodson hit Dicky Lyons for a 27-yard gain, the Cats had the ball on the Tiger 14. Woodson then found Curtis Pulley, the backup QB-turned-wideout, for seven yards to the LSU seven, but three straight incompletions ended the threat.

The Tigers promptly put together a 93-yard scoring drive that took less than three minutes, slicing through the exhausted UK defense for a seventh touchdown, producing the final 49-0 margin.

It was as complete a dismantling of a Brooks-coached Kentucky team as we had ever seen – and ever WOULD see.

The Wildcats bounced back in 2006, thanks in part to a fortuitously-timed open date. UK had the following Saturday off, so Brooks spent the next few days putting his players through drills designed to make them more “physical.” It paid off.

The Cats’ next game was in Starkville, where they ground out a 34-31 victory over Mississippi State – the first of four straight wins, which carried Kentucky to the Music City Bowl.

For Phillips and the 2012 Wildcats, it will be a different story. There will be no happy ending.

They suffered through a similar shellacking; theirs was worse because of Arkansas’ ability (and eagerness) to throw the football. On the Hogs’ first play from scrimmage, Taylor Wyndham, normally a pass-rushing defensive end, dropped back in coverage, slipped on the wet turf and watched Jonathan Williams haul in a pass and race 74 yards for a touchdown, an indication of what kind of night it would be. Tyler Wilson threw for 372 yards in a game shortened by 20 minutes because of the weather.

On that night in the Bayou back in ’06, the Tigers ran the ball 42 times and threw only 26, racking up 546 total yards to just 227 for the Wildcats.

And there IS an open date at play this week as the Georgia Bulldogs come to town – only it’s the Dawgs who have had the extra days to prepare, taking last Saturday off. They’ve had an additional week to steam about the ­­­35-7 pounding they took at South Carolina two weeks ago.

Georgia QB Aaron Murray completes 62 percent of his passes; he’s fourth in the SEC in passing efficiency and in 162 attempts has thrown just four interceptions (12 touchdowns). He’s second in scoring only to Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, personally producing 16.3 points per game.

Freshman tailback Todd Gurley is tied for the SEC lead with 10 touchdowns this season for a team that is second only to A&M in scoring offense.

If there is a flicker of hope, it may be that the Bulldog “D” has struggled, ranked only ninth in the league in total defense. But a sobering reminder is the fact that Arkansas ranks last – the same Razorback team that Saturday night walked eight and nine men up to the box and all but completely stifled the UK offense.

Additional prep time might have given a few injured Wildcats some extra time to heal (chief among them, freshman quarterback Patrick Towles), but it likely wouldn’t make a difference this Saturday.

In ’06, the UK roster included the offensive talent that would go on to break school records the following season. Those Wildcats had the weapons it took to attack, stretch the field and put pressure on opposing defenses. And most of those players were part of the Kentucky team that would gain its measure of revenge on the Bayou Bengals in 2007, upsetting a top-ranked LSU team that would go on to win the national championship.

This UK team is a patchwork collection of a handful of veterans and a busload of youngsters who are still learning what SEC football is all about. They got a brutal lesson last Saturday.

And they’re about to get another one.

(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th year with the UK TV and Radio network, and can be heard each Monday-Friday at 6 p.m. on The Big Blue Insider, on 630 WLAP-AM.)