The Kentucky football program, viewed through the Big Picture prism, seems to be heading in the right direction. And yet, far too many times this season, there seemed to be too many unpleasant Blasts from the Wildcat Football Past.
The progress Mark Stoops and his staff have made in the recruiting wars has given the Big Blue Nation hope. Every UK coach who has had even a modicum of success has done it by raising the talent level (Fran Curci, Rich Brooks) or making better use of the players he inherited (Jerry Claiborne, Hal Mumme).
Stoops found some talent on his first Kentucky roster, but not nearly enough. And he’s set about rectifying that by landing the likes of Drew Barker from just up the interstate, and by developing what has become a recruiting bonanza in his home state of Ohio.
“I’m optimistic about the future,” Stoops said. “Recruiting is going very well. We laid the foundation this year. We’re excited about the future.”
Better athletes, instructed properly, are what stand between the Wildcats and another spate of plays and games that created a 2-10 mish-mash of a 2013 season. Brooks had gradually turned Kentucky into a team that forced the other guys back to their respective locker room, muttering about all the mistakes THEY had made. Joker Phillips and his staff misfired on too many recruits, which was a big reason Stoops didn’t have anywhere to turn for playmakers this year.
That’s why it felt sickeningly familiar when the Cats let games get away as they did in the bad old days of UK football:
WESTERN KENTUCKY – The Wildcats came out and played as though they had just met their coaching staff in the tunnel leading to LP Field in Nashville. Kentucky surrendered 487 yards and still had a chance to climb back into the game, but a late fumble by freshman Ryan Timmons and a missed extra point by Joe Mansour, who went on to have a creditable senior season, ended any hope of a comeback win.
LOUISVILLE – The UK defense threw wrinkles at U of L that stymied quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the first half. But with the Wildcats down only 10-3 and driving late in the 2nd period for a potential game-tying touchdown, tailback Raymond Sanders fumbled on the Cardinal 13. Louisville scored on four of its five second-half possessions and held off the Cats, 27-13.
FLORIDA – The Wildcats made Florida’s Tyler Murphy, in his first start at quarterback, look like Tim Tebow in the Gators’ 27th straight win over the Wildcats. Murphy was filling in for the injured Jeff Driskell, and he led Florida to a 24-7 win. The only points scored by the Cats came courtesy of Mansour, who ran for a TD on a trick play out of field goal formation. It was the first sign of the UK offense falling into a deep slumber.
SOUTH CAROLINA – In what might have been the Wildcats’ most impressive performance of the season, Kentucky looked hopeless in falling behind 21-0, and then unstoppable as the Cats cut the deficit to 35-28 late in the game behind a rejuvenated Jalen Whitlow at quarterback. He expertly led the Cats on an eight-play, 81-yard scoring march late in the contest that pulled UK to within a touchdown, but an USC handled the onsides kick and ran out the last four minutes of the game.
Still, it was enough to give the Big Blue Nation hope as a murderer’s row of games was about to hit its zenith.
ALABAMA – By recovering two red zone fumbles, the Cats played the Crimson Tide to a 0-0 tie after one period. But short of nailing ‘Bama’s locker room door shut at halftime, nothing was going to help Kentucky after that.
MISSISSIPPI STATE – This was classic, old school (read: Bad days) UK football. Kentucky fell behind a Mississippi State team that wasn’t much better than the Cats, in spite of their youth and injuries. But the UK defense allowed Dak Prescott, not one of the great QBs in the SEC, to have a career night – throwing two scoring passes and CATCHING one as well.
Still, the Wildcats, down 21-10 at the half, pulled to within 21-19 in the third quarter and appeared to make the play of the game by recovering an onsides kick. But a UK defender was ruled offsides, giving the ball (and the momentum) back to the Bulldogs, who went on to a 28-22 win.
MISSOURI – After a feel-good rout of Alabama State, the Wildcats took on a Missouri team that was fortunate to beat UK last year, but healthy and capable this season – which is why the Tigers will play for their first SEC Championship on Saturday.
Mizzou overpowered the Wildcats, showing Stoops and company (as if they didn’t already know) how far they have to go to reach the top of the SEC East.
VANDERBILT – Like Mississippi State, Vandy just doesn’t seem to be that good and yet, the Commodores keep winning by doing just enough. The Wildcats marched right through the ‘Dores on Kentucky’s opening drive, but when Mansour’s extra point kick was blocked and returned for a two-point score, the momentum seemed to settle into the Vandy sideline and stay there all day.
The Commodores snuffed out three UK drives in the first half by intercepting Whitlow, and only twice in the second half did the Cats cross midfield as the offense stagnated again. Vandy called a timeout to score the final TD in a 22-6 victory which had Stoops looking as though he could chew through an iron bar when it was over.
GEORGIA – Like too many bad old UK-Georgia games, this was a bad matchup. The Bulldogs carved up the Cats, who were never really in this one from the start. The only bright spot was a 69-yard scoring scamper by tailback Dyshawn Mobley, who ran as though he had no interest in playing linebacker, something Stoops openly discussed with the media, after watching Mobley smash ball carriers on special teams.
TENNESSEE – This one ended the way so many UK-UT games have, with the Vols winning. But this was a bad, bad Tennessee team, one looking to break a four-game losing skid and avoid its first eight-loss season in program history.
The Cats made what had been ordinary Volunteer players look like All-SEC candidates. Defensive end Corey Miller, who had entered the game with five career sacks, rang up 4.5 to set a new UT record – passing a guy named Reggie White.
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs threw four touchdown passes and ran for another. Tailback Raijon Neal ran for 134 yards, including 60 for a score on the game’s second play.
Kentucky, which fell behind 20-7 at the half, tried everything. On their first drive of the third quarter, with a chance to make it a one-score game, offensive coordinator Neal Brown called for a reverse/pass at the Tennessee 36. Wideout Joey Herrick took a handoff from a tailback and had a fellow wide receiver running free behind the UT defense, which had been suckered in by the play.
Only Herrick slipped and fell on the wet turf. Loss of ten. Punt.
It was that kind of season. And we’ve seen too many of them. But if Stoops has his way, we won’t see any more, starting next year.
“You get a year under your belt, you get a good feel for the guys as you’re talking to the group,” he said after the season finale. “You can see the guys, what’s in their eyes and who’s all in to your program. You see more and more guys that understand what we’re looking for.”
And there will be even more of them in uniform next season, after his second recruiting class arrives. “We’re not going to accept anything less,” Stoops said. “We’re going to bring everybody up to the level that we expect.”
At that point, perhaps the Nation can, once again, say goodbye to the Bad Old Days of Kentucky football.
Dick Gabriel is in his 23rd 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.