Mark Story: No amount of trickery will help Kentucky grow up faster

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 28, 2013 

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

Frustration lifted off Neal Brown like heat off of asphalt.

The new Kentucky offensive coordinator had just watched his youthful offense get throttled by a stifling Florida defense. For UK, the final offensive numbers were grim: 47 plays, 48 net yards rushing, total offense of 173 yards.

"We never got in rhythm all night," Brown said. "What did we run, 40 plays, 40-some plays? I've never had that few plays in my life, I don't think."

For the 27th consecutive year, Florida (3-1, 2-0 SEC) beat Kentucky at football. The No. 20 Gators may have been playing without starting quarterback Jeff Driskel and star defensive tackle Dominique Easley, but it did not matter Saturday night against the Wildcats. UF handled UK (1-3, 0-1) 24-7 in front of 62,076 fans in Commonwealth Stadium.

Facing a Florida defense that came into the game leading the SEC in eight different statistical categories, the UK brain trust believed it had to take chances to stay in the game.

The first big chance, a fake field goal from the Florida 25-yard line late in the first quarter, yielded a touchdown run by place-kicker Joe Mansour that tied the game at 7 and electrified the crowd.

After that, every UK gamble blew up on the Cats, not the Gators.

With Kentucky down 21-7 but getting the ball first to start the second half, the Cats moved to a third-and-1 from their own 34. Rather than run straight at UF, UK tried an end-around to Javess Blue.

It lost 3 yards.

"We practiced that for two weeks, felt like on the first short-yardage situation we got into, we were going to run that," Brown said. "We didn't block it properly."

Kentucky was still down 14 with 5:40 left in the third when the Cats defense came up with a huge play. Linebacker Josh Forrest picked off a Tyler Murphy pass and returned it to the Florida 37.

On third-and-5 from the 32, Kentucky got tricky. Wide-out Daryl Collins took a handoff from quarterback Jalen Whitlow and rolled to the right. The play was a throwback pass to Whitlow on the left sideline. It looked like it was set up to go for something big.

Except Collins hesitated, never threw the ball and got tackled for an 11-yard loss.

"We should have thrown it," Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said. "It was set (up). We saw some opportunities (to make big plays). That was one."

In the big picture, we've all compared the current Air Raid 2.0 to the original that Hal Mumme installed at UK in 1997. Obviously, the first Air Raid produced a little bigger initial bang. Mumme inherited Tim Couch to play quarterback, veteran receivers like Craig Yeast, Kio Sanford and Kevin Coleman and an offensive line that returned five starters.

That's not exactly the situation Stoops, Brown and Co. have walked into.

"I knew this was going to be a lengthy process," Brown said. "We're playing young guys. I think we started three true freshmen and a junior-college transfer at wide receiver and a true freshman running back. That's who we are. We've got to keep playing those guys and get better."

Kentucky also continued to alternate two quarterbacks against Florida. Maxwell Smith finished 12-for-20 passing for 90 yards with one interception. Whitlow was 5-for-6 passing for 35 yards and ran three times for 9 yards.

That old saying that when you have two QBs you really have none? It's true. In the short term, I'd like to see Kentucky pick a quarterback and give him a chance to play extended minutes.

The problem, as we've noted, is that Smith has proven injury prone in his UK career. The redshirt sophomore from California does not seem to be throwing the ball nearly as well in 2013 as he did early last year when he averaged 322 yards passing a game in UK's first three games before being knocked out by shoulder and ankle injuries.

Whitlow, conversely, is an electric athlete but has yet to show he can throw effectively against good teams. In an offense predicated on a QB hitting receivers in stride with passes, that's not good.

Still, I think UK needs to pick.

"Neither one of them has really separated themselves," Brown said. "I wish they would, to be honest with you. We're going to continue to evaluate that position."

With South Carolina and Alabama dead ahead on the Kentucky schedule and given UK's current reality of quarterback issues and fuzzy-faced kids at the other offensive skill positions, a highly frustrated Kentucky offensive coordinator may be par for the course for a while.

"It's always frustrating," Brown said, "when you play bad."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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