CRAWFORD | Searching for the worst moment in Kentucky's 44-35 meltdown loss to Southern Miss
Kentucky's 45-34 season-opening loss to Southern Miss starts a conversation that Wildcats coach Mark Stoops was hoping to avoid, and one the Wildcats need to change as soon as possible.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) -- Go ahead callers, taking your picks for worst moments of the University of Kentucky football team’s season-opening 44-35 loss to Southern Miss.
Was it giving up 34 unanswered points after blowing out to a 35-10 lead? Was it losing a lead of more than 20 points in a second straight home loss?
Was it losing to a team whose last visit to the Commonwealth resulted in a 45-28 loss to Western Kentucky in the Conference USA championship game last December?
Was it being dominated in the second half by an offense coached by a coordinator you just fired? Was it running just 14 plays in the second half to Southern Miss’ 53?
Was it quarterback Drew Barker turning it over three times in the second half, twice on fumbles during sacks, and once on an interception?
Was it running back Boom Williams averaging 7.2 yards per carry -- but only getting 13 carries?
Was it Southern Miss realizing it could run on Kentucky’s defense with no problem, grinding out 296 yards and 40 ½ minutes of possession?
Or, maybe the worst moment didn’t happen on the field at all. Maybe the worst moment was when Kentucky coach Mark Stoops vowed to “stay the course” after the game?
Phone lines are open.
Our first call is from Mark S. from the press room at Commonwealth Stadium. Go ahead, caller.
“I don't know if I've ever in my career, ever wanted to apologize for a game, but that's a tough pill to swallow right there, and I do,” Stoops said. “I didn't think I would ever do that. That's a tough loss and our fans deserved better. And I'll tell you this, we'll play better. . . . I know everybody has every right to question what we're doing and we'll stay the course. You saw how we can play and how we will play. We made plays on all sides of the ball in that first half and the guys knew what they were doing. We were executing, played with urgency, made plays, and did some very good things.”
Kentucky looked surprisingly good in the first 30 minutes. Barker was sharp. Receivers made plays. The defense was dominant and Kentucky’s much-heralded secondary looked every bit worth the billing, intercepting Southern Miss QB Nick Mullens three times.
UK was up 35-10 on a team that is no fluke. Then Mullens found Isaiah Jones open on a post pattern for a 71-yard touchdown before the half, and Southern Miss had some momentum.
Kentucky’s five second-half possessions ended this way: 1). Sack and fumble; 2). Sack and punt; 3). Interception; 4). Three-yard completion on third-and-20, punt; 5). Sack and fumble.
Stoops had an easy answer for what went wrong: Everything.
“It's a team game, as you know,” he said. “When one side is struggling, we can't let them double us up in time of possession. That can't happen. So once again, I believe we only got two first downs in the second half. So, it's both sides playing equally bad football. We are not capable of beating anybody when both sides play bad.”
Not beating anyone, of course, is not an optimal scenario, not when you’ve just opened a new training facility and renovated your stadium and raised ticket prices, not when your just-fired offensive coordinator is running circles around you. Not when he’s giving his star running back 36 carries.
You could feel Stoops’ frustration. He spent an entire offseason with a one-word sermon: “Finish.”
Maybe his players misheard him. Maybe they thought he was saying “finished.” That’s how they played the second half, as if the surveyed the first half stat sheet and thought, “Our work is done here.”
The defense began to struggle and wear down when USM went to its up-tempo run game. Barker, who had been on point in the first half, coughed up three second-half turnovers.
And a crowd that began the game at a just-under-capacity 57,230 was pretty sparse by the game’s end. And you have to wonder how many will be back.
“The attendance part hurts, because I do feel an obligation,” Stoops said. “I want our fans -- there's so many good people. I walked in today with Talbott Todd and I want to make guys like that proud of our program and our team. And it hurts. It does.”
All right, enough of that. Yes, it’s a bad loss. But there are only a few things you can do to get past it. You can beat Florida. End the 29-year losing streak. That would change the conversation. The SEC chase is not lost. There’s plenty of mediocrity to go around. Despite the offensive doldrums of the second half, Kentucky, on the whole, still looked better offensively than the majority of their SEC East division. Get into that divisional chase. That would help people forget.
But Stoops’ chances to make people forget are diminishing. He looked and sounded shaken in his postgame news conference. He seemed determined, but also at a loss to explain how, after he spent much of the offseason on his team’s ability to finish games, it could finish the first game out of the box -- when it led by 25 points.
There were some good moments in the first half Saturday. They were far outweighed by the bad in the second. Worst loss of the Stoops era? I don’t know. Southern Miss is no joke. Kentucky, meanwhile, is in danger of becoming a punch line, unless it can change this conversation quickly.
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