It’s not as though the Wildcats couldn’t move the football. They gathered 369 yards by land and by air against a Missouri team blessed with speed and size and speed. And size.
But Kentucky could scratch out just 17 points while surrendering 48, which was not the way things were supposed to play out at Commonwealth Stadium Saturday. Any thoughts of upsetting a Top 10 team and staying alive in the unlikely hunt for a bowl bid disappeared before they retreated to their locker room at halftime, down 28-3.
That’s where Mark Stoops evidently lived up to the description shared by his ex-roommate, current Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema, who said Stoops showed up at Iowa “short, red-headed and angry.” He was all three, reportedly, during recess with an emphasis on column C.
But he wasn’t the only one. A staff member said he’d never seen a halftime locker room full of so many vocal, angry people – players and coaches alike. Senior tailback Raymond Sanders was one of the players who stood up and spoke, imploring his teammates to show more effort in the second half, according to his post-game interview on the UK radio network.
Some of the Wildcats said they heard something “wooden” break during the halftime break; there was talk that offensive coordinator Neal Brown had smashed a dry-erase board.
Nobody in blue and white was happy on this football afternoon in Lexington. Save for the Alabama game, the Wildcats had been hyper-competitive in all their previous SEC matchups, all losses. But after UK’s opening drive, which stalled at the four and resulted in just a Joe Mansour field goal, it was Mizzou that looked every bit the nation’s ninth-ranked team, the one angling for a trip to the SEC championship game.
By halftime the Tigers had pounded the Cats for more than 250 yards of total offense, holding Kentucky to just a few strides beyond 100. Hence the intermission fireworks.
And they worked. The Cats might have emerged from their tunnel at the start of the third quarter but they had tunnel vision before they left their locker room. Kentucky ground out a 13-play, 73-yard drive, all on the ground, which ended with quarterback Jalen Whitlow squirming into the end zone. It made the score just 28-10 but it signaled that the Wildcats were ready to play again.
Unfortunately, Missouri had an answer, as it did all afternoon. On the ensuing drive, Maty Mauk, who has to be the most effective backup quarterback in America, threw one of his four TD passes to wideout Dorial Green-Beckham and the Tigers eased back out to a 25-point lead.
They would connect again at the start of the fourth quarter as Green-Beckham became the first Tiger in the history of Mizzou football to grab four TD passes in one game. And the Tigers would cap the day’s scoring with an 86-yard scoring jaunt by Henry Josey.
It gave the visitors three second-half touchdowns to the home team’s two, meaning the second half was much more competitive than the first. That didn’t keep Kentucky’s head coach from blowing his stack any less.
“I'm trying to fight and claw and help lead this team as best I can,” Stoops said. “It is frustrating at times, but we all need to do a better job, and we need to overcome adversity. There's going to be bad plays, there's going to be adversity, and we've all got to handle it better.”
Stoops was at his most animated after a bizarre play that saw the Wildcats, during the second quarter, force and recover a fumbled punt inside their own 15-yard-line, only to see it wiped out by off-setting penalties. The Tigers then took the ball and marched 87 yards for a touchdown, giving them that fat 28-3 halftime advantage.
Sure, had they maintained possession, the Cats might have been down just 21-10, with all kinds of momentum. But they didn’t, and then they failed to stop Mizzou as the Tigers ground out their fourth touchdown.
The entire afternoon was testament to just how good this Tiger team is. A couple of botched holds on missed field goal attempts in an overtime loss to South Carolina is all that separates MU from a top-five ranking, an undefeated record and whispers of a shot at a national title. And that still could happen; all the Tigers have to do is win out (including a victory over Texas A&M) and then come up with a victory in the SEC title game, probably over Alabama.
Kentucky has a different mission. The Cats now have no mathematical shot at a bowl game. Their immediate goals are A.) snapping a two-game losing skid to Vanderbilt (which has outscored Kentucky 78-8) while giving their coach his first league victory; B.) upsetting a Georgia team that, coming into the season, entertained thoughts of playing for a national title, and C.) beating Tennessee for the second time in three years.
Any or all would help the seniors swallow yet another losing season.
“We play for pride,” said junior defensive end Bud Dupree. “We play for next year’s team. We play for the future of the program.”
It’s a future that perhaps someday could yield a similar season as the one enjoyed by the Tigers, who have as many red-shirt seniors (15) as the Cats have seniors, period. Experience and talent – it’s what worked for Mizzou in the win over Kentucky, a team still in short supply of both.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)