So Close – Until It Wasn’t

U K Q B Stephen Johnson tries to see over the Alabama defense to throw a pass down field.  He had only 89 passing yards vs the Tide.

U K Q B Stephen Johnson tries to see over the Alabama defense to throw a pass down field. He had only 89 passing yards vs the Tide.

Be honest. For a quarter, which of you didn’t entertain the impossible dream?

It wasn’t to be. It was never supposed to be. And, in fact, those first 15 minutes – which featured Kentucky scoring first, holding a lead for nearly the entire first quarter, remaining tied well into the second quarter – revealed more about this Kentucky team than the rest of the game as it devolved into a blowout.

It’s a team still being led by a willing but not-quite-up-to-the-task quarterback. It’s a team without enough production from its offensive line. It’s a team that can’t quite decide how to balance what was promising to be a dynamic running attack. Boom Williams struggled. But Benny Snell is a bruising straight-ahead runner, and that just seemed like it might have helped produce a few more first downs and keep the defense off the field when the game was still close.

I am loath to criticize coaches and managers. They have so much more experience doing what they do and so much more information than I’ll ever have – than most of us will ever have. But sometimes, their decisions are mystifying.

I thought the defense did some good things, though its inability to tackle cleanly kept it on the field, giving Alabama way too many yards at key times. Jordan Jones continues to be a force out there – like Bud Dupree a couple of years ago and Cory Johnson last year – an energetic heat-seeking missile, always near the ball, tackling surely. The secondary was humbled.

Special teams were good. The punting game was mostly strong, kickoff and punt coverage was solid, Austin MacGinnis did what he had to do.

So it’s 2-3 and on to the rest of the SEC. This was never going to be a W on Kentucky’s schedule, and Mark Stoops lives to fight another day. Nobody could possibly hold this one against him.

And yet, as the one-sided game droned on through the fourth quarter and the clearly bored TV announcing crew turned its attention to some Alabama back-up QB who had left the team – honestly, 10 minutes on Blake Barnett? – what drew my ire was the annoying pats on the head these guys kept proffering to Kentucky. (Though, to be honest, it was better than the comic-opera despair that Gary Danielson displayed during the Florida game.)

The ESPN bunch kept telling us that Stoops had the team going in the right direction. How condescending. And how accurate? There’s little evidence of that right direction so far this year. In fact, this year seems like a step backward, which is the wrong direction in most athletic activities – unless maybe you’re a hockey defenseman.

Nobody can blame Stoops for the loss to Alabama, even the one-sided nature of the loss. But I have yet to see, four years into the Stoops program, that there’s a consistent elevation of play. All the early precursors – the strong recruiting classes, the fast starts in both 2014 and 15, the hiring of Eddie Gran – have dissolved in what was expected to be, at last, six wins and bowl-eligibility.

The only bowl Kentucky looks likely to participate in is the annual SEC East Patsy Bowl. You know the contenders: There’s always Vanderbilt (though Vanderbilt’s narrow loss to Florida on Saturday might have elevated the Commodores past U-Know-who). Maybe Kentucky can roar past Missouri. Or maybe Kentucky has already pinned the patsy tail on the Gamecocks.

In any case, it’s not the company Kentucky was expected still to be keeping this season.

When Les Miles was fired by LSU last week, I wondered if he might be on Kentucky’s radar. (Do not tell me I was the only one to think that!) There are coaches who always seem to produce and coaches who don’t. Anyone listening to the announcers drool over Nick Saban on Saturday night knows which one Saban is.

You know who else is? Bobby Petrino. Yes, he may sometimes be the subject of controversy, but look what he’s done, again, with the Louisville program.

The Cubs’ Joe Maddon. Pete Carroll. Rick Pitino. Urban Meyer. Jim Harbaugh. Pat Riley. Bill Belichick. Steve Spurrier. And yes, certainly, John Calipari. They’re people who’ve come in and made things happen, turned programs around. Strong personalities making strong impacts.

One hopes Stoops becomes that kind of coach. One certainly hopes it will be at Kentucky.

But when? VT