Today we’re going to learn from a pair of football analysts – one with a wealth of experience and a resume’ that is broad, deep and impressive. The other is a student of the human condition who was one of the funniest men who ever walked onto a stage.
From Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Parcells: “You are what your record says you are.”
And from comedian George Carlin: “The object in football is to march downfield and penetrate enemy territory, and get into the end zone…”
It doesn’t take much to weave both comments through the narrative that is UK football in 2015.
The Wildcats’ record is 5-6, the same as it was this time last season. In a season where some (ahem) thought they would finish 8-4, they’re scrambling again to earn a coveted bowl bid. What 5-6 says is, “Sometimes good, sometimes not.” And to Parcells’ point, that’s accurate. The Wildcats are what their record says they are.
As for Carlin, his line about the object of the game comes from his classic routine comparing football and baseball (where the object is “to go home!”) And he’s absolutely spot-on when he says the object of football is to march downfield. That’s what Kentucky has failed to do on a consistent basis, which is why Parcells’ quote is in play, as well.
And it’s not just because of the offense. There are a handful of factors that explain why the Wildcats, who finished last season ranked 68th (around the middle of the pack) in field position. This year they have been at or near the bottom all season.
Opposing teams have enjoyed better field position almost every week, meaning their respective offenses haven’t had to work nearly as hard as Kentucky’s. And with the rash of dropped passes plaguing the Cats again this season, they’ve been hard-pressed to sustain long drives from deep inside enemy territory.
Mark Stoops pointed to the woes surrounding the kicking game this season. Punter Landon Foster, a pre-season All-SEC pick, has punted so poorly at times that he briefly lost his job. Kicker Austin MacGinnis has been nursing a groin injury that has kept him, and his booming kickoffs, on the bench periodically.
“One of the frustrating things for us has been the health of our kickers and actually kicking the ball well,” Stoops said. “We’ve had our struggles with that and it puts the coverage units in some tough spots.”
The return game hasn’t given Wildcat fans much to cheer about, either. J.D. Harmon broke loose for a 60-yard kickoff return against Eastern Kentucky, while freshman Sihiem King has returns of 48 and 39 yards, but that’s it. Punt returner Ryan Timmons lost his job to former walk-on Charles Walker, whose sole purpose seems to be safely hauling in punts without letting them role dead inside the 10-yard line.
The Wildcats have lost hidden yards in another area: defense and turnovers. Last year Kentucky defenders picked off 15 passes and recovered eight fumbles. This year they’ve fallen on nine fumbles but they’ve made only eight picks.
In 2014, the Cats were good for 27 sacks and 64 tackles-for-loss. They’ll have to produce the greatest defensive effort in school history against Louisville in order to match those numbers, the Wildcats accounting for only 17 sacks and 50 TFLs so far this season.
Some of the lack of productivity can be explained by the loss of noseguard Melvin Lewis, out with a broken leg. But for the most part it’s easy to draw a line to the departure of a pair of defensive ends now playing in the National Football League.
Bud Dupree (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Za’Darius Smith (Baltimore Ravens) are doing their respective things now on Sunday. Last year the two of them accounted for nearly half of Kentucky’s sacks (12) and almost a third of the TFLs (20). What they also did was close in on opposing quarterbacks from either end like stereo monster trucks, forcing bad decisions and quick throws.
Kentucky hasn’t gotten anything even closely resembling that kind of productivity from a defensive lineman. The team leader in sacks is middle linebacker Josh Forrest, with 3.5. Defensive end Farrington Huguenin recorded his first career sack last Saturday night, against Charlotte – and he’s a senior.
You won't hear Stoops refer to his departed stars because it would sound too much like excuses in the making - and he'd be right.
They don’t paint a pretty picture and yet, despite what the numbers indicate, the Wildcats still have a shot at a bowl bid. But in order to beat the Cardinals they’ll have to match last year’s effort, when they forced four turnovers.
Of course, one of their two interceptions was a pick-six by Fred Tiller and one of the two fumbles was returned for a score by Mike Douglas. But even if they aren’t directly returned they still could become points. The Cats converted the other two turnovers into scores.
Kentucky last season also put together a pair of 75-yard scoring drives in the second half against the Cardinals, nearly pulling off the upset.
The Wildcats likely will be underdogs on their home field. And late Saturday afternoon, more words from Bill Parcells will ring true, to one fan base fare more acutely than the other:
“There is winning and there is misery.”