CRAWFORD | Surveying the damage at Kentucky after a worst-case s - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Surveying the damage at Kentucky after a worst-case scenario 0-2 start

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Florida's Jim McElwain greets Kentucky's Mark Stoops Saturday in Gainesville, Fla. (AP photo) Florida's Jim McElwain greets Kentucky's Mark Stoops Saturday in Gainesville, Fla. (AP photo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- All along, we were told that the University of Kentucky football staff was on the recruiting trail playing “Yahtzee!” They have welcomed some of the highest-rated recruiting classes in UK history to Commonwealth Stadium.

But three years and two games into Stoops’ tenure at Kentucky, it appears that instead of Yahtzee, the staff might’ve been shooting craps.

I’m not talking about quality of players. I am talking about results on the field. What has happened in the first two games of the Kentucky football season has been textbook Worst Case Scenario.

The Wildcats began the season with some hope -- blowing out to a 35-10 lead on Southern Mississippi. In that half, they showed what needed to go right. Quarterback Drew Barker was confident. Wideouts got open and caught the ball. Running backs piled up yardage. The offensive line was serviceable. Defensively, a shaky front seven was shored up by a ball-hawking secondary that grabbed three interceptions.

I don’t know if that half was fool’s gold. But we know now that it surely wasn’t gold. At Florida on Saturday, Kentucky was manhandled 45-7.

Being manhandled by Florida isn’t new. Kentucky has lost 30 straight to the Gators. But in the Swamp, as it did in the second half against Southern Miss, things that absolutely could not happen for UK actually came to pass.

The Wildcats couldn’t have Barker lose confidence or go into a shell. He was 2-10 passing on Saturday. They had to have their offensive line hold up to give the unit a chance to maintain some possessions and put points on the board. The line hasn’t held up. They needed superlative play from a secondary ranked among the best in the SEC. They didn’t get it at Florida.

Every team, outside of an elite handful every season, has weaknesses it needs to hide. You can mask those weaknesses for a while, usually, but there’s too much technology in the game, too many coaches studying you on tape, to hide them for long.

Kentucky hid its weaknesses for almost one half of football. In the next three, they have been exploited. And in the absence of players emerging to alleviate some of them, those weaknesses are going to be exploited all season.

The book on Kentucky is a quick read. You’ll only need one sitting.

The defensive front can’t stop the run. It needs significant support from its linebacking and secondary groups. But if you provide that support, pass defense is going to suffer, as it did at Florida. Because its front seven is so poor against the run, there’s no need to worry about passing it, until coaches have adjusted to help stop the bleeding, then you can go over the top with relative ease. Or at least a Florida team that managed just 24 points in a win at Massachusetts, was able to.

“We’ve got to get stronger up front and (in the) back end we thought we were going to have some guys that could cover some people but we’re not playing very good there today as well,” Stoops told reporters after the loss. “.  . I always worry about that when they’re running the ball and they have weapons outside that can really go, really stretch the field,” Stoops said. “And they hit us right over the top. I’m not sure we ever really responded from that point on.”

The worst thing a team can do is become one-dimensional in any aspect. Defensively, that’s the predicament Stoops is in.

Why the offense isn’t better, however, is more of a concern. It has a bunch of returning starters. But at Florida, it couldn’t protect. It gave up five sacks. The Wildcats ran for less than 100 yards (94) and passed for less than 100 (55) in a game for the first time since losing to Alabama in 2013.

Barker simply has to be better. There’s no real alternative if he fades, except perhaps to snap it to JoJo Kemp in the Wildcat. (Don’t laugh, they beat South Carolina doing that, and beat Tennessee using a backup wideout at QB.)

“I’ll have to look at the film, but there were some throws in there that he did miss,” Stoops said. “He’s got to step up – when he was getting some pressure, he bought himself some time and he’s got to step back up in that pocket and make some throws.”

Barker went 2-10 for 10 yards and three interceptions. That’s a negative 31.6 efficiency rating. That’s being efficient for the wrong team. He has good skill weapons around him. The running backs are good. The wideouts can make plays.

But if the defense doesn’t have to respect the pass, none of those other weapons are going to get a chance. Florida outgained Kentucky 564 to 149. It ran 83 plays to Kentucky’s 48. And looking at the personnel Stoops has available, it’s hard to find any help on the way. Stoops is a defensive guy. There’s nowhere else to place blame for a defense that ranks 123rd (out of 128 in the nation) in total defense, 127th in opponent third-down conversions, 126th in opponent possession and 125th in scoring defense.

The other big problem for Stoops is this: None of this happens in a vacuum. Florida has drubbed Kentucky before, to be sure.

But now, Kentucky fans have been told about several good recruiting classes stacked up in a row. Commonwealth Stadium has been renovated. A new practice facility has been built. Their season tickets cost more.

Neal Brown, who was wished a fond farewell two years ago, led Troy to hard-nosed 30-24 loss at Clemson on Saturday. Patrick Towles, who left to few shed tears after last season, threw for 191 yards and two touchdowns in a win over UMass. He also carried for 66 yards. Shannon Dawson, fired as UK’s offensive coordinator after last season, lit up the Wildcats in this year’s season-opener with Southern Miss.

In Bowling Green, Jeff Brohm had WKU in the Associated Press Top 25 after last season and the Hilltoppers beat UK twice before the series stopped. Also Florida, it should be remembered, is coached by Jim McElwain, a former Louisville and Alabama assistant who could've been had as a coach at about any point.

And up the road, Louisville is lighting up scoreboards and welcoming ESPN’s College GameDay to town this week.

For UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart, who has preached patience and shows no signs of not staying the course with Stoops, it’s a difficult situation. He hired Rich Brooks, then Joker Phillips, then Stoops. If Stoops ends up being Strike 2, not many athletic directors get a third strike when it comes to hiring football coaches.

Stoops is saying all he can say, that the team and coaches will get back to work with New Mexico State coming into Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday. But even with all of the facelifts and investment in football at Kentucky, the same problems persist.

I can’t imagine the reception will be warm next week in Lexington, and the discouragement only makes things more difficult. Kentucky needed to at least be competitive at Florida. It wasn’t, and a worst-case scenario may well be about to play out, as a result.

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