Though Mark Stoops’ Cats are 4-1 after five games, they’ve also picked up a bad habit along the way.
They keep playing to the level of competition, which is all well and good when you’re playing a good team. It’s not so good when you are playing a team of lesser talent, when your habit of not playing at your best can often find a way to jump up and get you beat.
That almost happened Saturday night at Kroger Field when SEC member Kentucky needed to survive a Hail Mary throw on the game’s final play to beat MAC member Eastern Michigan 24-20.
“That didn’t feel very good through the whole game,” Stoops said afterward. “I was not very comfortable because we just didn’t play our best.”
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Didn’t play their best and then some.
“We just didn’t have that edge,” said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. “Last week there was an edge.”
Last week, Kentucky played Florida, a team it had not beaten since 1986. The Gators had won the SEC East the past two years. The Cats were hyped, the seats were full and UK, which led by 13 points in the fourth quarter, could’ve/should’ve won the game before falling 28-27 in a heartbreaker.
The week before, at conference foe South Carolina, the Cats shook off a terrible start and took it to the Gamecocks for a 23-13 victory right there in Williams-Brice Stadium.
In its other three games, however, UK’s non-conference games, the Cats have played just well enough to win, beating Southern Miss 24-17, Eastern Kentucky 27-16 and now Eastern Michigan by four points.
Here’s the thing: If the Cats don’t shake this just-good-enough habit, they are going to fool around and lose to a team of lesser ability, a team Kentucky should beat.
Take next Saturday, for example, when SEC East member Missouri comes to Kroger Field. To put it mildly, the Tigers are not very good. They gave up 43 points in their opener against Missouri State. They’ve lost to South Carolina 31-13, Purdue 35-3 and Auburn 51-14. Last year, they lost to Kentucky by two touchdowns at home.
And yet Mizzou does have weapons, starting with quarterback Drew Lock. They will have had two weeks to prepare. And if Kentucky again plays down to the level of competition, the Tigers are certainly capable of beating the Cats.
Plus, it is never good for a team to think it can just flip the switch whenever it wants, to think it can glide against the lesser teams, then turn on the jets against the better competition. Oftentimes, for those teams, sometimes that switch just won’t flip.
“We lost our focus, even on the sideline,” Gran said. “We can’t have that. We’ve got to get that back.”
John Schlarman didn’t feel much better. When UK’s offensive line coach showed up for interviews, he was clearly agitated. Not with the questions, but with his unit.
“Overall, not good enough,” Schlarman said. “Got to protect the quarterback better, got to run the ball better.”
“We’ve just got to play better,” Stoops said.
He wasn’t talking about the defense, which pretty much saved the day the same way it did against Southern Miss and EKU. Josh Allen had a huge game rushing the quarterback off the edge. There were some key stops. Mike Edwards made eight tackles and intercepted that EMU Hail Mary at the end.
And UK’s special teams could not have played much better. True freshman Josh Paschal blocked a punt “that was huge,” Stoops said. Punter Matt Panton helped control field position. UK covered kicks well. Tip your hat (again) to special teams coordinator Dean Hood.
To be sure, there is something to be said for a team finding ways to win when it does not play it best.
“That’s what I appreciate about them,” said Stoops, but added, “We need to come back in Monday focused, energized and ready to play. There’s no excuse for not playing our best at home.”
Keep playing to the level of the competition and the Cats will soon be looking for excuses after a loss.
Missouri at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC)
Kentucky football 2017