Rocky Loses the Battle, but Maybe Wins the War

Photo by VICTORIA GRAFF | Contributing Photographer Kentucky QB Patrick Towles fought for a touchdown in the fourth quater versus Mississippi State. Towles made a 4 yard run into the end zone.

Photo by VICTORIA GRAFF | Contributing Photographer
Kentucky QB Patrick Towles fought for a touchdown in the fourth quater versus Mississippi State. Towles made a 4 yard run into the end zone.

It was like Rocky vs. Apollo – the first one.

The champ hit the lightly-regarded underdog in the face. The underdog hit him back.

15 rounds. One split decision. Apollo won, but at the end he looked as bloodied and beaten-up as Rocky. He breathed hard, happy to have the win, but wondering what in the world he had walked into and eager to get to the locker room and lie down.

What might happen the next time they fought?

Repeatedly, last Saturday, Mississippi State hit Kentucky in the mouth and hoped the Wildcats would stay down. But they never did. They kept hitting back, until an inept onside kick attempt was returned for a touchdown by an upfield MSU linebacker who was initially only in the play to block.

The Cats were down 14 points then with only two minutes to go. Too much for even Rocky to overcome. Special teams again sealed the Wildcats’ fate.

For the second week in a row, Kentucky gave up 40-plus points to a ranked SEC opponent. But this one was much different than the 41-3 loss to LSU, starting with the fact that this opponent was the country’s Number One-ranked team.

A lot went wrong. Patrick Towles was under run-for-your-life pressure every time he dropped back to pass. The receivers, who had been challenged to go out and win some one-on-one battles, won some but also lost a couple in very important moments. The tackling was too often nearly nonexistent.

I’m not only referring to the missed tackles in Josh Robinson’s relatively extraordinary 22-yard run for a first down in the third quarter, where he was hit at least seven times and kept bouncing off, like a pinball. I’m talking about misses throughout the game, misses that could have kept a first down to a couple of yards and perhaps changed the entire complexion of the game.

Bud Dupree gestured at something noteworthy afterwards. Too many guys try to strip the ball rather than making the tackle. I think that’s an unfortunate development in today’s football – college and pro. Sometimes it works and the carrier coughs up the ball and everyone goes wild. More often, it doesn’t work, and the six-yard run becomes a 36-yard run.

Gary Danielson, the knowledgeable and passionate “SEC on CBS” announcer whom I happen to like listening to, had said earlier in the week that Kentucky didn’t have enough athletes at enough key places to challenge elite SEC teams. He may be right, but he couldn’t stop raving about Kentucky all afternoon – especially about Towles.

Dak Prescott had come into the game as the Heisman front-runner. But Saturday, he was no better than Towles.

I don’t love a quarterback carrying 23 times in a game. A quarterback shouldering that kind of load can lead too often to separating that shoulder.

Towles is tough and athletic and über competitive. I think he’d rather have the ball in his hands than hand it off to anyone else. But where is the deep halfback corps that was supposed to be this team’s hallmark?

Did Boom Williams’ absence really make all that difference? Have the coaches suddenly lost faith in Braylon Heard, Mikel Horton, Jojo Kemp?

When Towles running is an unexpected complement to a complete offensive game – as it is for Prescott, as it was for Tim Tebow and Cam Newton – it’s a powerful weapon. When it becomes the number one option, it becomes too predictable and stoppable.

But I think Towles came of age this weekend. He went from a young QB with a ton of promise to a seasoned QB who has been through the gauntlet and come out the other side.

Will he be flawless from here on out? Of course not. But he’s on his way to being a reliable, quality SEC quarterback.

And I think all of this bodes well for the rest of the season – Missouri, Georgia, Tennessee and Louisville. Three of those games are on the road, but none of those teams is Mississippi State, none of those places is Death Valley.
I’ve given up thinking about winning the SEC East. That winner will only be a raw steak for whichever team comes charging out of the West’s tiger cage.

What’s left for Kentucky is the win that will make the Cats bowl eligible. Two wins would be better. Three would probably earn them a decent bowl invitation. Four . . . all right, I’m getting carried away again.

And, of course, there’s the other major challenge ahead: Louisville on Thanksgiving weekend, Nov. 29. It’s doable. There should be a sizable blue contingent in the Cards’ Redout or Blackout or Whiteout at Cardinal Stadium. Louisville has had a good season, but there have been disappointments. I have not necessarily seen a lot of distance between the Cardinals’ season and the Wildcats’ season.

Should be a terrific game. I wonder whether Charlie Strong will show up, for old time’s sake. His season will be finished after a Thanksgiving night game against TCU. “Finished” is apt.

Or maybe he’ll be in Gainesville, Fla., talking about a vacant coaching job. I can’t believe nobody has mentioned his name yet. He has the pedigree. He was an assistant at Florida to both Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer during some very outstanding seasons.

And from what I’m hearing, Texas might be willing to let him out of his contract. Just sayin.