In the world of big time college athletics, especially in cold and ruthless SEC football, there are no moral victories. Wins and losses define teams and coaches. But, if you’re one of those folks still saying, “Same old Kentucky” after Thursday night’s 28 – 22 loss to Mississippi State, you’re really missing the point about what exactly is going on in Lexington.
While on the surface, it’s easy to say that head coach Mark Stoops is cleaning up former coach Joker Phillips’ mess, there’s much more to righting the ship with the UK football program. To change the culture, Stoops is going up against decades of the fans, the UK administration of just seeing the football team as a nice distraction before basketball season kicked off. He’s going against decades of coaches and players coaching and playing not to lose instead of going out and coaching and playing all out to win the game. Just being good enough is no longer good enough for UK football.
How many coaches go for it on fourth down 5 times in one game? And, until Max Smith’s last pass sailed high, Kentucky was 4 for 4 in converting those fourth down plays. And, on a controversial ruling, after JoJo Kemp’s 14 yard TD late in the third quarter brought the Cats to within 2 at 21 – 19, Stoops called well-timed, well-executed onside kick. But, a flag was thrown, nullifying the play as a Kentucky player was ruled to be offsides. On replay, the call looked a little iffy, but it was enough to stifle the momentum that Kentucky was building at that stage of the game. The Bulldogs drove down and scored a touchdown and after Joe Mansour’s 44 yard field goal with 8:15 left in the game, the Cats wouldn’t score again.
The defense, while still having some lapses, most notably Mississippi State’s first TD was a 60 yard pass to a wide open receiver, they made enough plays to keep the Cats in it. The biggest stand happened as the Bulldogs were attempting to run out the clock. The defense, led by Bud Dupree, sacked MSU’s Dak Prescott which gave the Cats the ball near midfield with time on the clock, giving the Wildcats an opportunity to drive for the winning score.
Unfortunately, the Cats wouldn’t get any closer than the 29 yard line, turning the ball over on downs for their only failed 4th down conversion. On a previous 4th down play, Raymond Sanders burst through the line and looked to be in the clear for the go ahead score, but was tripped up by a Mississippi State defender. Clearly, if Sanders scores, we’re having a totally different conversation.
Sometimes, the difference between winning and losing is a made or missed tackle here or dropped or tipped pass there. Right now, the Kentucky Wildcats just aren’t good enough to absorb the same mistakes as an Alabama and go on to win. UK’s margin for error just isn’t there right now. They need to take advantage of every opponent miscue and limit their own. For example, see Alabama in the game against UK. Two turnovers in the opponent’s 10 yard line and the Crimson Tide was still able to turn it around and win. Kentucky simply isn’t to that point yet.
So, yes, the Cats lost, but if you look a little deeper, you can see that there’s progress being made. There aren’t any moral victories, but morale in the Big Blue Nation should be high. The Cats are playing and coaching to win and when they break through and win, all this hard work is going to pay off.