Football

John Clay on UK football: Cats are a disorganized mess and that's Mark Stoops' fault

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops walked past reporters to the locker room after the Kentucky at Vanderbilt football game at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tenn.,, on Nov. 14, 2015. Vanderbilt beat Kentucky 21-17. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops walked past reporters to the locker room after the Kentucky at Vanderbilt football game at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tenn.,, on Nov. 14, 2015. Vanderbilt beat Kentucky 21-17. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

Some losses you can blame on inferior talent. Some you can blame on bad bounces. Some losses, however, the blame has to start at the top.

Kentucky's 21-17 loss at Vanderbilt on Saturday night was one of the losses.

It was a game in which the Kentucky offense outgained the home team by 53 yards, in which the UK defense held up its end of the bargain by forcing turnovers, a game in which running back Boom Williams, playing with a large brace on his injured elbow, zipped through and around a Top 20 defense for 115 yards on a mere 13 carries.

This Music City heartbreaker wasn't just a winnable game, this was a game Kentucky should have won if not for some questionable decision-making and baffling disorganization. And it's made all the more troubling by the fact that it isn't new.

"The game came down to a lot of critical plays and also a few decisions with myself that sometimes can turn the outcome one way or the other," head coach Mark Stoops said afterward. "We came up on the wrong end of the stick."

For example, one week after saying he made a mistake by going for it on fourth-down just inside Georgia territory last Saturday, Stoops opted to roll the dice on a fourth-and-one at the Vanderbilt 49-yard line with a minute-and-a-half remaining in the first half and UK down 14-10.

Worse, Kentucky half-heartedly rolled it, first trying unsuccessfully to lure the Commodores offside, then letting the play clock run down until finally the ball was snapped and quarterback Drew Barker fired a low-percentage deep shot to Blake Bone that fell incomplete.

"It was a poor decision," Stoops said. "All on me."

As you might expect, Vanderbilt turned that miscalculation into a touchdown and in particularly embarrassing fashion.

After a Vandy timeout with 43 seconds left, the Commodores pulled the "lonesome end" play with a receiver acting as if he was going off the field only to stop just inside the field of play. By the time Kentucky saw what was happening, it was too late. Uncovered, Vandy's Caleb Scott took Kyle Shurmur's pass for an easy 37-yard touchdown.

"Deception play that we got deceived on," Stoops said. "Totally legal."

Then in the fourth quarter, UK again got caught looking totally disorganized. Down 21-17, the visitors lined up for a 32-yard field goal by Austin MacGinnis but with just 10 players on the field. Offensive tackle Jordan Swindle, injured earlier, thought he had been replaced. He wasn't. Stoops elected to take the five-yard delay of game penalty.

"I felt like we would need the timeouts at the end of the game and five yards wouldn't make a difference," Stoops said. "In hindsight, it did."

MacGinnis missed the 37-yard attempt, just as he missed a field goal at Mississippi State after Stoops was forced to take a timeout. That timeout came just as MacGinnis was kicking the ball, even though his field goal unit was late to get on the field.

There have been too many of those this season. There were eight players on the field for a punt return against Auburn.

There were plays in which the UK defense was not lined up correctly or out of position or apparently confused on what exactly what it was supposed to be doing.

On offense, there have been too many scoring opportunities in which the Cats somehow found ways not to score. Two different possessions Saturday — late in the first quarter; early in the second quarter — UK had a first-and-goal inside the Vanderbilt five-yard line and failed to come away with points.

On the field, Stoop is an emotional coach who spends a good amount of his time pleading his team's case to the officials or challenging his coaches and players. There's a place for that. There's also a place for attention to detail and making sure your team is managed correctly.

This may be his third season, but it's also Stoops' first crack at being a head coach. It's a work in progress. Even the most experienced coaches have a bad night where things don't go right. For a young team and a young head coach, Saturday night was a painful learning experience of a loss.

"You all can write what you want or whatever," Stoops said. "I know I've got to make better decisions and put our team in a better position to be successful. That goes with the territory. But I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to go back to work."

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