John Clay: 30-point loss to Vandy tough to swallow

Freshman QB needed help he didn't get

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 13, 2011 

NASHVILLE — When you are at home, comfortable in your surroundings, playing against the worst team in the SEC, you can appear in total control of the situation as you lead your team to victory and lift the spirits of your fan base.

That was Maxwell Smith, Kentucky's true freshman quarterback, last week against Ole Miss.

But the next week you're on the road, unfamiliar with your surroundings, playing against far better competition, and you can appear like, well, struggling as your team suffers its worst loss to Vanderbilt in 42 years.

That was Maxwell Smith, UK's true freshman quarterback, Saturday in Nashville.

"I said last week that Max made about 15 plays good, fortunately the ones he didn't have good didn't kill us," said UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. "This week he probably had about 15 plays good again, and we've got to keep making progress and get better much faster than we are."

In other words, Kentucky got killed, losing 38-8. It marked the first time since 1994 that a Kentucky football team has lost three games by 30 or more points in a season.

Marvelous Maxwell was supposed to have been this season's change agent. From the time the California native took over for an injured Morgan Newton in the second half of that 28-16 loss to Mississippi State, through the Cats' 30-13 win over visiting Ole Miss last week, the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder appeared to breathe some life into the UK offense.

Saturday, the Cats went back to barely breathing. Smith's stats weren't awful. He completed 15 of 31 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown, without an interception. But he was sacked four times. The Cats were 0-for-12 on third down. They gained just 211 yards, fewest against Vandy since 1995.

"There were some tough situations that Max was in," UK Coach Joker Phillips said. "We had a couple of drops again that showed up today. There were some things that happened in the first half of the season, that hadn't shown up."

It's more than the quarterbacks. With two games remaining in this 2011 season, it's painfully obvious that the last two years under Rich Brooks, and probably even the first season under Phillips as head coach, Kentucky's recruiting was not as advertised.

This is still a team bereft of playmakers on offense, that lacks stoppers on defense, that does not have the kind of difference-makers you need to compete, much less win in the SEC.

That being said, too many times in Phillips' 23-game tenure as head coach, Kentucky has shown up flat and ill-prepared. That's the combination that produces performances indicative of poorly coached teams.

It was striking on Saturday that Vanderbilt, playing under a first-year coach in James Franklin who had never been around the Commodores program until last spring, played with so much more energy and enthusiasm than did Kentucky, a team playing under a second-year head coach who served as an assistant at the same school the previous seven years.

Starting his second college game, Smith couldn't change that. Not to worry. He has the makings of a good quarterback. He can be accurate. He hangs in against the rush. But he is a true freshman, and it is difficult for any true freshman to win on the road in the SEC. Not without help.

"They showed me everything I was expecting," Smith said afterward. "I was actually seeing it pretty well. I was just missing throws that I've got to make. It was inexcusable."

Kentucky football fans no doubt feel the same way. You don't lose to Vanderbilt by 30 points, even if this is a better Vanderbilt.

"It's tough," Smith said. "Any loss is tough, but especially the way we went out here. It wasn't good. At all."

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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