By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Maybe it’s Mark Stoops or maybe its Eddie Gran, I don’t know. That “root hog or die” mentality that makes Mark Stoops and Eddie Gran good coaches when they have a talented, experienced football team is the same thing that seems to make them poor coaches when they have a talented but inexperienced team. It’s their inflexibility and unwillingness to change.
Saturday night against South Carolina, and even the previous week against Mississippi State, it was obvious that the passing game with Sawyer Smith wasn’t working. It seemed pretty plain to even the casual observer that Smith could not throw the ball with any consistent accuracy or zip. He just was physically unable to perform. And yet that seemed to be the game plan the coaches came up with and continued to stick with during both games. That’s what I mean by inflexibility and unwillingness to change.
A couple of years ago Alabama’s Head Coach Nick Saban – when he realized his game plan as executed by star quarterback Jalen Hurts was not going to win the game – changed game plans and quarterbacks and ended up salvaging the game he was coaching and the National Championship. And he went with an unproven commodity in backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, even though Jalen Hurts was not injured. But Saban, unlike Stoops and Gran, could see that repeating the same failing process over and over again was not going to win the game. For some reason Stoops and Gran either could not, or would not, see the same thing against both Mississippi State and South Carolina.
At the very end of the game, in mop-up fashion, Stoops finally replaced Smith on a full-time basis with Lynn Bowden. Immediately the body language of the UK players changed. Their blocking was crisper and on target, Chris Rodriguez ran the ball well and Lynn Bowden created opportunities for himself through the quarterback run option. Had that been the offense UK used starting the second quarter they could have headed home from Columbia, South Carolina with a road victory.
But because Stoops and Gran seem to be very inflexible and not very willing to change on the fly they suffered another devastating loss at the hands of a very mediocre SEC opponent.
Stoops himself admitted that he overplayed an injured Sawyer Smith during the South Carolina game when he should have moved on to other options. He said, “In hindsight, I would have pulled him a few series early. We were just waiting to put a drive together, but he was definitely banged up.”
Now, this is a coach who has watched his quarterback complete 11 passes out of 32 attempts for a completion percentage of 34 percent for a total of 90 yards with no touchdowns and an interception and he realizes that in hindsight he maybe should have replaced him earlier; but he was waiting for him to put a drive together. Unwillingness to change.
Stoops went on to say this about using Sawyer Smith in future games, “He needs to be honest about that (his injuries), whether or not he’s going to be effective. If he’s not 100% or close to that, he needs to tell us that.” That comment in itself seems ridiculous. As a coach you are asking a player, who is trying to hold onto a starting quarterback position at an SEC school after coming over as a transfer from a Sunbelt school and who has players depending on him as a team leader, to tell the coach that he won’t be effective and the coach should play someone else. That’s not going to happen.
The coaches should evaluate the player’s performance on the field, which was horrendous due to his injuries, and take him out because he is not effective.
The bottom line on this is that because Mark Stoops, and maybe Eddie Gran, are coaches who avoid any risk at all costs, they tend to pick a horse and ride it to death. They did that with the Wildcat in previous seasons and it worked. They did it with Benny Snell last year and it worked. Unfortunately their game plan of playing an injured quarterback who is expected to throw but can’t has backfired. And in so doing has cost the team two very winnable SEC games.
Now it’s time to try to right the ship, pick the quarterback that gives the team the best chance to win and game plan around that. Hopefully with Stoops comments on Monday about getting Lynn Bowden and Walker Wood ready to go he is doing just that. Anything less than that would seem to be more of what we have seen too much of this season – an unwillingness to change.