Kentucky didn’t just lose the Governor’s Cup on Saturday, whipped 44-17 by Lamar Jackson and the archrival Louisville Cardinals, the Cats dissolved into an undisciplined mess of angry tweets, personal fouls, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and a near out-and-out brawl.
“Not a good look,” said Mark Stoops afterward.
No, it’s not, and responsibility, as Stoops freely admitted, falls on the head coach. For all his Cats accomplished in 2017, winning seven games and clinching a second consecutive bowl trip, the way they ended the regular season surely left a bad taste with the program’s faithful.
The first leak sprung late Friday night. At 10:51 p.m., offensive guard Nick Haynes, a senior captain, let loose a rip on Twitter, accusing unidentified members of the coaching staff of caring only about a paycheck. The tweet was quickly deleted, but on the internet, once you hit send, nothing is truly gone.
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The bad vibes continued right into Saturday. As Louisville was driving for its second touchdown on just its second series, UK linebacker Jordan Jones ended up in a sideline shoving match and then fight with Jackson, the Cardinals’ star quarterback, with the two rolling around on the artificial turf of Kroger Field attempting to wail on the other.
After the two (and others) were separated and UK wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas stepped in and was talking with Jackson, whom he recruited while an assistant at Louisville, Jones appeared to first shove and then have words with his own assistant coach before order was restored.
“Jordan is an emotional player,” said Stoops of the preseason All-SEC linebacker who was one of four players, including Jackson, who received unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on the play.
Later, with Louisville up 31-10, Jones picked up back-to-back personal foul penalties for unnecessary roughness, followed by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on fellow linebacker Denzil Ware. The transgressions helped Louisville to yet another score.
If you thought Jones would be benched, you’d be wrong. After backup Eli Brown played a couple of series, back into the game came Jones. Never mind the outcome was pretty much decided. Never mind that Jones’ lack of restraint had hurt himself and his team.
None of this is to say that a disciplined Kentucky would have won Saturday. Motivated by last year’s Governor’s Cup loss at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, Louisville was too good. Or shall we say Jackson was too good, completing 15 of 21 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for 156 yards on 18 carries.
“I don’t recall defending anyone as talented as he is,” Stoops said.
An undisciplined Kentucky had no shot. And with all the talk this season — Stoops’ fifth season as head coach — about this team being an older, more mature group, the Cats lost their heads in the very game they needed them most.
“It’s an emotional game,” said quarterback Stephen Johnson. “The rivalry with Louisville is a big one obviously. Guys are really passionate about it, sometimes a little bit too passionate. You can’t fault them for that.”
Yes, you can. Jones is a high-energy player with terrific skills, but he’ll never reach his full potential unless he learns self-control. An unsportsmanlike conduct and three personal-foul penalties in the same game helps no team.
Plus, Jones is a junior. Stoops has had three years to work with his talented linebacker, but putting the Ohio native back in the game after Saturday’s behavior isn’t sending the right message.
“I need to do a better job of working with him and holding him accountable and holding his feet to the fire on that,” said the coach afterward. “He is definitely an emotional guy. He needs to control that better. I’ve got to coach it better.”
And while Haynes’ Friday night tweet was surely born out of frustration — the Florida native has played briefly on special teams since October while battling diabetes — it’s not the first time this season UK players have tweeted public criticism of their coaches. Each time, Stoops has promised to deal with the problem, but he hasn’t been able to stop it.
Yes, these are college kids. And college kids do dumb things. And, yes, talent matters. But more often that not, a disciplined team wins the football game while the undisciplined one loses. Saturday, it lost 44-17.
Kentucky football 2017