CRAWFORD | Amid the excitement, some reality in Kentucky's loss to WKU
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It was, overall, about what you expected from a Kentucky football team with a new coaching staff and 11 first-time starters, but largely the same personnel that went 2-10 last season.
Mark Stoops will review the film and find a ton of little mistakes from his first game as coach at University of Kentucky, a 35-26 loss to Western Kentucky at LP Field in Nashville. Missed tackles, illegal procedure penalties, a team dominated by the Hilltoppers on both lines of scrimmage.
He'll also have to accept one bigger mistake on his part -- he went with the wrong quarterback.
Don't take this as a criticism of Jalen Whitlow. He led the team well and did nearly everything he was asked for three quarters. He ran for 75 yards and a touchdown. He's going to be really good, and he may well be the quarterback UK needs to use once Southeastern Conference play begins later this month.
But with Western Kentucky and Bobby Petrino leading 35-17 in the fourth quarter, UK brought in Maxwell Smith, and all of a sudden the "Air Raid" offense of coordinator Neal Brown was able to go to the air.
UK passed for only 18 yards in the first half. It threw the ball only twice for a negative four yards in the second quarter. Whitlow finished 10 of 15 for 78 yards. In one quarter of work, Smith completed 8 of 13 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. It came against a WKU defense that was playing soft with a big lead, but Smith still played well enough that Stoops said after the game that coaches would have to revisit the quarterback situation.
"I thought Jalen did some good things," Stoops said. "I've got to look at the film and see if it was him or the players around him that hut us at times. Obviously Max came in and looked really good."
There were problems aplenty for UK. But Stoops knew there were problems when he came in. Jobs don't open up unless there are problems, and Stoops has been addressing most of them in the most time-honored of ways: recruiting. Eleven players -- half the position roster -- were making their first college start, five on offense, six on defense. That's a tough situation, no matter who the coach is.
One major problem was offensive tempo. Bobby Petrino doesn't run a no-huddle scheme, but still managed to run 75 plays to UK's 60. Whitlow missed on some important passes early, and though he and running back Raymond Sanders (14 carries, 98 yards) got some work done against WKU on the ground, that doesn't necessarily allow you to stress defenses into the demanding tempo that provides an advantage. The read-option was working, but UK clearly didn't want to just utilize that kind of two-man running game, and if you don't want to do that, you have to use the better passer.
That running game will be an important weapon when the defenses get better than the one WKU trotted out. But Saturday night, UK needed the quarterback with better command of his arm.
In fact, after hearing Stoops say that both would play against WKU, I wondered if he wouldn't rotate them more often during the game than we wound up seeing.
Stoops, after the game, was just as disappointed with his defense. WKU mounted long scoring drives on three of its first four possessions. It rolled up 487 yards of offense.
"They controlled us at the line of scrimmage and created some good run plays with different looks. We looked out of place several times," Stoops said. ". . . It was frustrating the whole game. Things that we were in position to stop, had worked on, had seen it, same look, and did not play it well. That was very discouraging. There are some things with new guys and inexperience, you' can take some of that. I was discouraged that base, fundamental things with good calls to stop it, we didn't stop it."
Stoops himself will feel the heat on some calls. Down 17 in the fourth quarter, he elected to go for a field goal at the WKU five-yard line rather than a touchdown. Still, the strategy could well have worked, had a Joe Mansour extra-point not hit an upright after a UK touchdown late. Down three scores, you get the sure score. That criticism may be overplayed, but what the field goal represented is the bigger issue. After the offseason of hype, UK fans were ready to see their program go for broke. Instead, they saw a conservative approach.
"We need to coach better," Stoops said. "We need to play better. We need to look at everything we're doing, especially defensively."
All of the excitement Stoops generated leading into this game doesn't necessarily dissipate. The recruiting class is still ranked highly. The new facilities are still in the works. But Saturday night showed that the road back is indeed every bit as long as it looked. And it won't necessarily be a fun road. Change takes time, unless you're John Calipari.
Stoops missed a chance to hang onto his offseason momentum, but the loss shouldn't cause any dwindling of his support.
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