By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
We’ve all seen this movie too many times before. It’s like a football version of the movie Caddyshack. Build a small lead and take it into the second half. Then try to sit on the ball offensively hoping the clock will run out. The other team brings in the backup quarterback and he plays like a Heisman candidate. The opponent then gains momentum from the backup quarterback’s play and Kentucky, unwilling or unable to make offensive adjustments, loses a close game that they should have won.
We saw it again against the Tennessee Volunteers. Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt brought backup Jarrett Guarantano in to play quarterback in the second half, he opened up the Volunteer offense, started throwing the deep ball and quickly took the lead 17-13 with about six minutes to go in the third quarter.
Kentucky, like a miser hoarding pennies, had carefully protected their 13-3 lead in the first half by constantly running the ball and when they did throw it it was usually only out of desperation. UK played their own football version of the old basketball “four corners” stall game. Mark Stoops even decided to punt the ball on fourth and one at the end of the half after Kentucky had crossed into Tennessee territory near the 40-yard line. Stoops said at halftime that he didn’t think the Cats could score with no timeouts and less than a minute on the clock. Sometimes, to win big games, you have to take chances. Mark Stoops rarely does and it really hurts his team’s ability to win.
The Cats came out in the second half leading 13-3 and appeared to make no adjustments on offense and could not generate any points against the Volunteers.
Then, through the fourth quarter in a classic Eddie Gran/Mark Stoops move, they stuck with Lynn Bowden and tried to run the same offense even though Tennessee had adjusted defensively to take away UK’s run game.
Time and time again we see the Kentucky coaching staff make inexplicable decisions that defy logic. Football logic says that when the Tennessee defense is stacking the box with 8 and 9 players the offense has to throw the ball. Lynn Bowden cannot consistently throw the ball so a logical coach has to make a change. UT Coach Jeremy Pruitt did make an offensive change at quarterback because he understands that a coach sometimes has to take a risk to win. Either Mark Stoops or Eddie Gran – or both – don’t seem to understand that same principle. And because they don’t, unfortunately, Kentucky fans had to watch a pathetic offensive performance in the second half that led to zero points and another devastating loss to the Volunteers.
Even as the minutes ticked away in the fourth quarter Kentucky, with Lynn Bowden still running the offense, had hope when at about the seven minute mark in the fourth quarter Tennessee coughed up a fumble and Kentucky recovered. UK then went on a time consuming drive that ended at the Tennessee 1-yard line with Eddie Gran calling two running plays into a stacked Tennessee line ready to stop the run.
Neither play — a third down run off tackle by Chris Rodriguez and a quarterback keeper by Bowden from the one yard line – -showed any creativity and ultimately ended any chance Kentucky had of moving to five wins overall and three wins in the SEC. It also gave the Volunteers and other programs in the SEC one more reason to disrespect the Kentucky Football program.
A football program like Kentucky’s, that is looking to move up the food chain in the SEC, has to make winning plays and if the coaching staff refuses to put the players in a position to win by choosing an offensive scheme that handcuffs the team it is difficult to gain any respect from anyone in this league.
Eddie Gran is a well respected offensive coordinator and Mark Stoops is a well respected defensive coach but they need to learn that sitting on the ball, after the offense gets a lead, is not the best strategy to win in a season when Kentucky desperately needs wins to qualify for a bowl game. SEC defensive coordinators are smart enough to figure out that your quarterback cannot effectively throw the ball and they stack the box to stop the run. Good teams have done that to Kentucky all season. Tennessee did it again Saturday night.
So once again fans are saddled with watching a UK team that has talent and desire fold up in the second half because the Kentucky coaches are so afraid of losing that they refuse to put the players in a position to take a risk and win.
Maybe, just maybe, one day Mark Stoops will have enough talent to go toe-to-toe with every other talented SEC school and run the ball when the opposing team knows they are going to run it. But that’s not the case this year, and hasn’t been the case any other year, except maybe last season. Even then Kentucky lost to a very talented Georgia team, Texas A&M team and a less than great Tennessee Volunteer team because they couldn’t generate any offense.
So the bottom line is, after getting shut out by Tennessee’s defense in the second half — with a healthy Sawyer Smith that put up plenty of points against No. 10 Florida earlier in the season sitting on the bench – Kentucky now has to win two of the last three games to become bowl eligible. They must either, beat Vanderbilt on the road, or beat Louisville at home plus beat UT Martin at home.
Although Vanderbilt has looked terrible this season they do have talented offensive players and Kentucky has yet to win a road SEC game this season. Louisville is no “gimme” game either as they currently are third in the ACC Atlantic Division with an overall 5-3 record. Neither team will be easy to beat; especially with a one dimensional offense that can only run the ball and a coach that refuses to make any adjustments that might involve taking a risk.
That is the predicament that Kentucky Football fans find themselves in. Hoping to eke our a victory against a 2-7 Vanderbilt team in Nashville or beating a hated rival in U of L at Kroger Field – a team that is playing well and could easily beat the Cats to qualify for a bowl game.
Next week, when Kentucky travels to Nashville in desperate need of a win, UK fans everywhere can only hope that Mark Stoops and Company find and use an offensive scheme that gives the team a good chance to do just that. Because so far this one isn’t it.