Running Away from the Run

Dorian Baker The University of Kentucky football team falls to Georgia Tech 33-18 in the TaxSlayer Bowl at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fl., on Saturday, December 31, 2016. Photo By Barry Westerman | UK AthleticsDorian Baker
The University of Kentucky football team falls to Georgia Tech 33-18 in the TaxSlayer Bowl at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fl., on Saturday, December 31, 2016.
Photo By Barry Westerman | UK Athletics

Any play that isn’t a Kentucky running play by Boom or Benny is a bad call.

Okay, certainly an overstatement. But it was baffling how Kentucky abandoned what got it there in this TaxSlayer Bowl. Its first four plays were a pass, a run by Dorian Baker, an incomplete pass and another passing play that resulted in a fumble. Down 7-0. (“Scoop-andscore,” a new term for a new age.)

I get the virtue of the unexpected. But if you listened to all the pre-bowl rave about the Wildcats, it was about this great running attack. Don’t you go with what got you there? That’s what confident teams do.

No trickery from Dabo. Or Sabo.

Georgia Tech was beatable. All we heard, for weeks, was this triple-option thing that overwhelmed eight opponents this fall – but also underwhelmed four. They scored a lot of points sometimes, but also not so many sometimes.

We probably thought way too much of this Kentucky defense, which, after all, had given up 38 points to Louisville, 49 to Tennessee, 38 to Mississippi State, 34 to Alabama.

We might have thought too much as well of Stephen Johnson. The inexperienced JuCo transfer did a yeoman job this season, culminating with his transcendent performance against Louisville. But he was not, as the TV announcers’ notes apparently read, an outstanding downfield passer. He’d been erratic, with overthrows and underthrows, wide throws and interceptions all season. And he had trouble protecting the ball.

There were, of course, insane penalties, a Kentucky bugaboo. Kash Daniel is a powerhouse in the makings, a special teams madman, but someone has to put a Xanax in his Gatorade before every game.

And Kentucky needs a punter. Also a way to keep Austin MacGinnis healthy.

In the end, the Cats got where no one thought they’d get – a winning season, bowl eligibility and a good, solid, New Year’s Eve bowl game at that. They didn’t embarrass themselves, showed a lot of heart coming back at the end and proved there’s much to be excited about for 2017.

But, sadly, goodbye to Jon Toth and Boom Williams, two of the program’s shining lights, and to seniors Jojo Kemp and Ryan Timmons, who came in, on faith, when the program was in transition and represented the dramatic upswing in UK’s football fortunes.

TALENT WAS ENOUGH AGAINST OLE MISS

The basketball Cats bounced back against Ole Miss – to nobody’s surprise. The hop was back in their steps, the smiles on their faces.

But what I saw was yet another case of superior talent imposing itself against a less-talented team. What I didn’t see was anything closer to a balanced, well-executed half-court strategy that has failed them whenever the Wildcats had to face a team of substance.

I saw Isaiah Briscoe, who had a marvelous triple-double game, barreling in for layups. Sometimes the path closed up on him, which created the opportunity for lobs that Bam Adebayo threw down.

I saw Malik Monk back on his shooting game, firing at will whenever his chances arose. (Or, because this is Monk, making every shooting opportunity his chance.) He was a North Carolina-like 11-for-16 from the floor, 5-for-7 from three.

I saw Bam getting the ball more regularly, where he came fairly close to being unstoppable. He’s more than massive. He’s a special athlete.

I saw De’Aaron Fox streaking up and down the court on his racehorse, all over the place, disrupting the Ole Miss offense when he was in. (Fouls limited his court time.)

I also saw Monk add to his highlight reel with an extraordinary behind-the-back-leap-get fouled-double pump-off-balance-off-the-backboard-YES-and-one.

Marvelous athletes, all of them.

What I didn’t see, still, was rhythm in the halfcourt. I saw a lot of, “Let’s see what I can do, and if I can’t I’ll give it to you and let’s see what you can do.”

I also saw a lot of sloppiness as the lead grew later in the game and perhaps fatigue set in, submerging concentration. This will not do in a close game against a qualified opponent.

Who knows which SEC opponent will push the Cats late into the game? Someone almost always does. Kansas certainly will on January 28.

Maybe athleticism is enough. But history shows that the days when a UNLV or Arkansas could win on pure, superior talent are 20-plus years in the past. More recent NCAA champions like Villanova, Duke, Connecticut, Louisville or the 2012 Wildcats came together to play together, based on discipline, on controlling the flow of the game.

That’s the winter program for Cal’s Cats, until spring breaks in March. VT