It looks like “must win” will hover over Mark Stoops’ head every week this season like a big dark cloud.
Kentucky football fans have been primed for success ever since Stoops was hired, and there have been enough teases along the way that the failures have become only more unacceptable to Big Blue Nation.
But after the guy who was given his first head coaching stint because of his defensive smarts called that unit “a bunch of crap” – after he publicly took over the defense from D.J. Eliot, after that Stoops defense allowed 42 points and 500 yards to New Mexico State – he was just inviting even more scrutiny than before.
“A bunch of crap”?? Such openness from a coach whose four years of public utterances had amounted to about 116 versions of, “We play ’em one game at a time.”
So this South Carolina game looked like it could be a breakout for the Gamecocks’ freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain – a chance to run the ball against the bunch that can’t tackle and to throw long against the safeties who play all-fall-down.
I have no way of knowing if what we saw on Saturday night was a group stung by their coach’s very public rebuke. Or are they simply better than that and by the fourth week were beginning to find their legs? Or is South Carolina just that bad?
For whichever of those reasons, this game was a victory for the defense. The offense did what it had to do, which was to consume enough of the clock – 33-minute time of possession – that the defense could rest and suck some air. Stephen Johnson played adequately; Boom Williams is the best running back in the nation that nobody notices; and Benny Snell is a freshman revelation who weebles and wobbles but won’t fall down. (Honestly, this guy doesn’t even wobble.)
And the defense did what nobody, including its coach, expected it to do. Courtney Love seems finally beginning to step up. Denzil Ware stepped up too. Matt Elam’s name was called for perhaps the first time I remember all season. Jordan Jones continues to be a special athlete. And the cornerbacks made a number of nifty plays.
Two stand out. One was Derrick Baity’s leaping, stretching deflection of a ball late in the second half. That play might not have lodged in your memory. I don’t think it will make a single highlight reel this week. But it’s the kind of play a good cornerback should make routinely, and Baity hadn’t been making them.
The other was Chris Westry’s takedown of South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst in the second half. That guy had been a thorn in Kentucky’s side all evening, and on this play, he caught the sideline slant, turned upfield and attempted to hurdle the 6-foot-4 cornerback. Westry could have done a lot of things. He could have just tried to shoulder-and-hip the guy out of bounds. He could have cut his legs out from under him. He could have fallen down and allowed a fairly long gain.
What he did do was go up and meet Hurst in the air, and take him down WWE-style. All that was missing was a folding chair to slam against Hurst’s head. I’m sure you do remember that play. It might well make some highlight reels. And it might well have saved the game.
But I’m mentioning it because it’s a sign of a new pugnaciousness in Westry’s equipment bag, not false preening or posing or congratulating himself because a receiver he’s covering gets loose but drops the ball. It was just tough football.
Good for both of them.
Look, just one win won’t satisfy those Kentucky fans who haven’t already given up on this team, who are still struggling to find that spark of hope. After two straight 5-7 seasons, only a six-win season was going to satisfy anyone.
And after that awful two-game start, with a bowl season evaporating by mid-September, the spark was nearly extinguished. I’m not sure that a win against New Mexico State that should have been easier and a win against a flawed South Carolina team is going to turn that spark back into a flame.
Especially not with you-know-who looming this weekend.
But the record is 2-2. And it was, against most expectations, a defensive victory. Stoops faced this most-recent must-win and won it. He deserves to take a breath and feel good. Who knows? Maybe this bunch-of-crap D is now ready to stand up to the Alabama juggernaut.
Or not. VT