Mark Stoops' introduction into the cold reality of why winning football games at Kentucky is so challenging hit a familiar obstacle Saturday.
As any Long Suffering Kentucky Football Fan can attest, when you come to believe there is one area of a Wildcats team that you can stone-cold count on, that tends to be the exact moment that unit lets you down.
In the first eight games of Stoops' first season as UK head coach, Kentucky's special teams had been mostly stellar. So, of course, in a game when the UK offense and defense each showed occasional flickers of being competitive with No. 9 Missouri, the Wildcats special teams laid a dinosaur egg.
Continuing its surprising drive toward the SEC East title in only its second year in the league, Missouri (9-1, 5-1 SEC) whipped Kentucky 48-17 before an announced Commonwealth Stadium crowd of 55,280.
Never miss a local story.
A shanked, 13-yard Kentucky punt set up Missouri's first touchdown. A blocked Wildcats punt set up the Tigers' second. An illegal formation penalty on the Wildcats punt team negated what would have been a fumble recovery by A.J. Legree at the Missouri 13.
After a third-quarter UK TD that gave Kentucky a flicker of hope, the Wildcats allowed John Gibson to return the ensuing kickoff 62 yards. It set up yet another Mizzou TD.
When it was over, UK special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto took responsibility for his unit's performance.
"I put the day on me," Peveto said. "Bradley Dale Peveto did not have them ready to play to(day) and I will get that fixed."
UK had trouble punting.
Kentucky actually led 3-0 late in the first quarter when UK punter Landon Foster came on to kick from the Cats' 26. The sophomore from Franklin, Tenn., suffered what in tennis is called a "mis-hit." His shanked punt traveled 13 yards before sailing out of bounds.
"I think what happened, I think for whatever reason, he just rushed it there and hit it bad," Peveto said.
It took Missouri all of three plays after Foster's misfire to score a touchdown that flipped the game's momentum.
Said Stoops: "He just shanked it. ... There's no excuse for that. I thought that was very critical."
With UK still down 7-3, Foster's next punt attempt from his own 14 was blocked by Missouri's Levi Copelin. That led to a 4-yard Henry Josey touchdown run for Missouri on the next play.
The block wasn't Foster's fault. "They just came clean on him," Stoops said.
Noted Peveto: "We had an assignment error. And you know, when you have an assignment error on a punt, bad things happen."
Over the rest of the game, Peveto pointed out that Foster and the punt team rallied to down four kicks inside the Missouri 20. But the damage had been done.
UK had trouble fielding punts.
Down 28-3 at halftime, Kentucky drove 73 yards to a touchdown on its opening possession of the third quarter. The UK defense then forced a Mizzou punt. However, on a day of swirling winds, the normally reliable Kentucky punt returner, Demarco Robinson, failed to field Christian Brisner's line-drive kick. It rolled its way into a 61-yard punt that was downed at the UK 6.
"I just judged it wrong off the kicker's foot," Robinson said. "I was trying to read the wind, and he was rugbying (the punt), but it just went the opposite way."
The flipped field position and a UK turnover set up yet another Tigers TD.
UK had trouble covering kicks.
Coming into the game, Kentucky was leading the SEC in kickoff coverage. Missouri, however, torched the Cats for an average of 36 yards on four returns.
The most costly came after a Raymond Sanders 1-yard plunge had pulled UK within 35-17 late in quarter three. On the next play, Gibson ripped off his 62-yard return to set Mizzou up at the Cats' 32.
"Oh man, that was extremely frustrating," said UK kickoff team member Tre' Dunn. "We were starting to get a little bit of momentum. ... (Gibson's return) definitely dampened our optimism."
This time, it took Missouri four plays to score a touchdown.
For struggling UK (2-7, 0-5), a day filled with special-teams follies created a canyon the Wildcats had no hope of climbing out of — especially against a team as well-rounded as Missouri.
"It wasn't a good game," Stoops said, "for us to break down in the special-teams area."