LEXINGTON, Ky. — That felt vaguely familiar, didn’t it? That sense of impending dread that washed over Kentucky football fans Saturday night at Kroger Field when the Wildcats clung to to a lead in the final seconds with the defense backed up to its own end zone and the ball in the air.
Hey, at least Kentucky covered the wide receiver this time. Unlike the Florida game, when the Cats left a guy uncovered for the winning touchdown with 43 seconds remaining, cornerback Lonnie Johnson was actually all over D.K. Metcalf on Saturday when the Ole Miss wide receiver made a leaping, toe-tapping touchdown catch in the back left corner of the end zone with 5 seconds to go.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 4, 2017
It was a spectacular play, no real shame in being on the losing end of that one, but it was yet another twist of the knife in a wound the Wildcats just can’t seem to close. Ole Miss 37, Kentucky 34 served as a bitter reminder that in Year 5 under a head coach whose specialty is tutoring defensive backs, the Cats are helpless to defend the pass.
“You know, there’s only so many things you can do,” said a defeated-sounding Mark Stoops of his secondary Saturday night. “I mean, we tried rolling [coverage]. We tried playing zone. We tried playing man. We tried pressing. We tried playing off. We tried a bit of everything.”
None of it worked — in this game or really any others so far this season. Kentucky came into this game 6-2 in spite of its pass defense and exited 6-3 and mathematically eliminated from the SEC East race because of a hapless secondary.
Jordan Ta’amu, in just his second career start, made like Tom Brady against the Cats: 31 of 40, 382 yards, 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions. For as tight as Johnson played the receiver on that final toss, Kentucky left at least one receiver — sometimes as many as three! — running wide open over and over again prior to the decisive play.
Van Jefferson walked in for a 20-yard touchdown in the second quarter because the Cats only used three defenders to cover four receivers. Even without an X-and-O decoder ring, that feels like something that is as much about coaches as players.
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) November 4, 2017
And this was no anomaly. The Cats ranked 113th nationally in pass defense entering the night. Now they’ve allowed 17 touchdown passes against only 6 interceptions. They’ve given up 299 yards passing to Eastern Michigan, 304 to South Carolina, 309 to Southern Miss, 355 to Missouri and now this, a new season high.
Remember back in July 2016 when Stoops declared he had “some superstars in the making” in the secondary? When Chris Westry and Derrick Baity and Mike Edwards were coming off encouraging freshman seasons — before all but Edwards began to regress?
Now there was a quote for Big Blue Nation to get excited about, because who knows a superstar DB when he sees one better than Stoops? He coached arguably the greatest secondary in college football history at Miami in the early 2000s and several NFL draft picks at the position at Florida State.
So … what the heck went wrong?
“I still think there’s some superstars in that group, I do,” Stoops said, standing his ground when asked to revisit that comment on Monday, before this latest debacle. “But we’ve got to do a better job and they’ve got to do their job and together there’s still a lot of potential in that group.”
If there was enough talent — and no one has recruited to Kentucky as well as Stoops — to get him excited two summers ago, is it not on the coaching staff now that they’ve failed to develop? Johnson, a junior-college transfer who hits hard but is suspect in pass coverage, started Saturday in place of a slumping Westry.
In addition to the last play, Johnson got burned by Medcalf on a 58-yard touchdown pass to tie the game late in the third quarter as the Cats’ 10-point lead evaporated. The Kentucky offense delivered, though, with a 12-play, 95-yard, 6-minute touchdown march to take back the lead with 2:14 to go.
If you could’ve read the minds of some 55,000 fans in the stands at that moment, they might have all been thinking the same thing: Too much time. Against the Wildcats secondary, it absolutely was.
Even before this loss, Stoops had been harping on a lack of competitive plays by his defensive backs: When the ball is in the air, 50/50 shot, are you good enough to win that battle?
“Not as good as they should at times,” Stoops said Saturday night. “It’s difficult. I thought the last play there, Lonnie played it good. He was getting physical, he was in good shape. [But] you’ve got to strip it out. [Metcalf] went up and got it in by inches. We’ve just got to finish it all the way to the ground.”
Make just two of those plays and the Cats are 8-1 right now, still right in the thick of the league championship hunt. That is why a long-suffering fan base can’t seem to allow itself to get excited about a team that already has clinched a bowl berth and still could win eight regular-season games for the first time in 33 years.
Florida fell to 3-5 and Ole Miss improved to 4-5 on Saturday. Those are bad teams and should’ve been gift-wrapped wins for the Wildcats. But like Kentucky’s defensive backs, they just couldn’t reach out and grab them.
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