Debating the third-down risk that backfired on UK football
Sometimes momentum shifts are subtle.
That was not the case in Kentucky’s 45-7 loss to Mississippi State on Saturday.
The earth moved under their feet when the Cats went for a big play on third-and-1 with three minutes to go in the first half.
Instead of going the safe route and running the ball to try and get the first down and points before the half, UK’s coaches opted instead for a long pass down the sideline.
The pass, with defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons in quarterback Stephen Johnson’s face, went off the hands of tight end Greg Hart.
What was a 10-7 Bulldogs advantage going into the half turned into a 17-7 lead when Mississippi State scored a touchdown on its next drive.
“The game flipped right there,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said.
But UK’s coaches thought they might be able to flip it in their favor.
“It’s a pretty big gamble,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “It’s a high risk, but a really good reward. It didn’t play out like we wanted it to. We had a guy open, and didn’t execute it. Would have been nice.
“Had a chance to be a big play, but it wasn’t. Hindsight is always 20-20. So the answer to that is, I wish I’d have run the football and just tried to get a two-minute (drill) and go in there and tie the game.”
It doesn’t all fall on Gran, though.
It was something all of them discussed over the headsets, and it was a play UK had worked on all week to take advantage of Mississippi State’s aggressive, gambling defense.
“In hindsight, if I had it over again, I would absolutely run the ball,” Stoops said. “I knew it was critical, but I also played to win the game. I thought we had a shot, and we had it set up. They came back and made a good play on the ball. It was open briefly and they played it well. Credit them. That hurt.”
Deep ball frustrations
The botched third-down play from Johnson to Hart was one of many shots down the field Kentucky didn’t connect on.
Being a yard or two — or more in some cases — on those plays was “really frustrating,” Johnson said.
“You practice it all week in practice, works out, and come game time, I’m a little bit short on my throws, so that’s something I have to go back and work on, just leading the receiver a little bit more,” said Johnson, who completed 13 of 28 pass attempts with two interceptions. “But we’ll get back to it.”
The way Mississippi State sets up coverages, UK thought those looks would be there, and they were.
“We had some opportunities and we didn’t connect,” Gran said. “That had been the recipe for everybody else that had beaten them. Didn’t get it done. I didn’t call the right ones.”
On bouncing back
With five games to go in the regular season, this isn’t a time to hang heads, Kentucky’s coaches and players said.
As cliché as it sounds, it’s time to go back to work.
“I told them to zip it,” Stoops said. “Look at yourself, look at things you can do better, and if you got your butt whooped, you accept it and you do something about it on Monday and in our preparation through the week.”
The coach said he’s not worried about UK bouncing back because he knows the character and leadership within the team.
“We’ve been through difficult times, and we have leadership on this team,” Stoops said. “I really believe in our coaches, and we’ll get it straightened out. Got to go play again next week.”
That leadership already was popping up in post-game interviews with the players.
“I have to be a better leader and step up and call guys out and let guys know what’s going on,” linebacker Courtney Love said. “We’ve got to do a better job tackling, leading guys. … We’re going to take this and go back to work. We’ve been here before.”
This is the type of performance they never wanted to see on tape again, Love said, before adding: “It’s something that’s not going to happen again.”