Mark Story: Kentucky offense lacking two crucial components

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 16, 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)

NASHVILLE — By the time Neal Brown emerged from the Kentucky locker room late Saturday afternoon, he could have done a pretty fair Rod Stewart raspy vocal.

"Disappointing loss," the UK offensive coordinator said. "You can probably tell that from my voice."

On a day when the Kentucky defense recorded six sacks and held Vanderbilt to 172 total yards through three quarters, UK nevertheless failed to claim its first SEC victory since the 2011 season finale. The primary reason was basic: The UK offense could not close the deal.

After scoring a touchdown on its first offensive series of the game, UK had four other drives end in Vanderbilt territory. None of them, however, yielded points.

For the third straight year, Vanderbilt beat Kentucky, this time recording a 22-6 victory that allowed James Franklin's Commodores (6-4, 3-4 SEC) to become bowl-eligible for a third-consecutive season. A sparse crowd of 33,488 in Vanderbilt Stadium watched UK throw four interceptions, finish with a mere 120 passing yards and sabotage a couple of potential game-changing plays with holding penalties.

As has been the case through most of 2013, Kentucky (2-8, 0-6) looked nothing like a vintage Air Raid attack that Brown was hired away from Texas Tech to re-install in Lexington.

"When you know what the product can look like, and you know what it should look like, and it doesn't look like that," Brown said, "it's frustrating."

In six Southeastern Conference games this season, the Kentucky offense has produced fewer than 350 total yards five times. Three times the Cats have been under 300 yards. It's a far cry from the pinball numbers (474 yards a game) Hal Mumme's original Air Raid produced in its first UK season in 1997.

One senses a certain frustration forming in the UK fan base toward the 33-year-old Brown, a wide receiver on the final three of Mumme's Kentucky teams.

That is wildly unfair. Look, three years into the rebuilding task that Mark Stoops and Brown took on in Lexington, if the UK offense is still misfiring, the frustration will have merit.

But in the meantime, consider some numbers. Last year, when Brown was calling the offense for Tommy Tuberville at Texas Tech, his attack averaged 37.5 points, 355.9 passing yards and 495.8 total yards a game. This season, the offensive talent Brown helped recruit and develop at Tech is producing 37.8 points, 408.2 yards passing and 530.5 total yards a contest for Kliff Kingsbury.

Right now, Kentucky's main offensive problem is that it does not have the two most crucial components necessary to run an Air Raid.

It does not have a quarterback who can consistently make accurate throws that hit receivers in stride and thus allow them to convert short passes into long gainers.

UK QB Jalen Whitlow is an improving football player. In an Urban Meyer-type spread-option, the true sophomore might be ideal. He is not a natural fit, however, in a pass-happy, Mumme-style attack.

Of Whitlow's four interceptions against Vanderbilt, one was on a Hail Mary. To my untrained eye, at least two of the others did not appear to be the QB's fault. "Biggest thing he's got to do, he can't get down on himself," Brown said. "I don't want to say without viewing the film, but I think very few of (the interceptions) were on him."

Still, Whitlow finished only 14-for-28 through the air for 120 yards. He did run for 69 yards on 17 carries.

Even if Kentucky had a QB that "fit" the Air Raid, it lacks the required number and caliber of offensive playmakers it takes to stress SEC defenses. UK has not had players capable of consistently producing explosive plays since both Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke departed after the 2010 season.

Saturday, a good Vanderbilt defense crowded the line of scrimmage and dared Kentucky to make it pay. All too often, UK could not.

"Defenses are sitting on us pretty heavy," Brown said. "Till we stretch them out, till we make a play one-on-one in the pass game, they're going to sit on us."

Add it together, 2013 has not been the merriest of homecomings for Brown, the former Boyle County High School wide-out who grew up in a family of Kentucky high school coaches.

"I'm not looking for any kind of pity," Brown said. "I knew where we were at, I followed the (UK) program as a fan (while coaching at Tech). I knew we were going to have an uphill battle in year one."

After another frustrating day of offense on a gray afternoon in Music City, it was easy to understand why Neal Brown had yelled himself hoarse.

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

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