Kentucky’s head coach has been training the secondary at one level or another for nearly 30 years.
So he looks at that position group with an especially critical eye.
Mark Stoops had some especially critical words for his safeties and cornerbacks after the Cats’ 45-7 loss at Mississippi State on Saturday.
“We’re making very few competitive plays,” Stoops said. “On defense we didn’t make one on the perimeter. They threw and caught the ball at will. And we didn’t defend it very well, didn’t win any one-on-ones outside on the perimeter.”
By his count, Kentucky’s secondary players had a chance to make plays on the ball 10 separate times and lost all 10 times.
“That’s not acceptable,” he said, noting that players like safety Mike Edwards and cornerback Derrick Baity have made their share of competitive plays for Kentucky (5-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference).
But that didn’t happen last week against the Bulldogs, who completed 70.4 percent of their passes against UK and had six different players catch a pass for double-digit yardage.
“We’ve got to get back to making some plays,” Stoops continued.
While the secondary is under a bit of a microscope with its head coach, it’s not the only position group from which Stoops is demanding more competitive play-making.
In the loss at Mississippi State, Stoops didn’t see wide receivers going up and making their share of competitive plays, noting that he could only think of one last week when freshman wide receiver Lynn Bowden made a grab in traffic on a Drew Barker pass when the game was out of reach.
“Outside of that, I don’t know that we made a competitive play,” Stoops said.
That had Eddie Gran extra frustrated after the loss as well.
“We had our chances,” the offensive coordinator said of some bigger plays down the field where either the passes were short or the Bulldogs defender knocked the ball down ahead of UK wide receivers.
“We had our chances out there to make some plays and make some big plays,” Gran continued.
The goal going into that game was to have what Cats coaches call “explosive plays.”
“We felt like coming in here that one out of every eight plays, we needed to have a 12-yard run or a 16-yard pass and we had some opportunities and we didn’t connect,” Gran added.
Against the Bulldogs, only five of Kentucky’s 59 plays fell into that explosive category with just two runs of 12 yards or more (both by quarterback Stephen Johnson) and only three pass plays of 16 yards or more, one being that Barker to Bowden pass late in the game.
There’s plenty of blame to go around — including the coaches themselves, they said — for Kentucky’s failure to make the necessary competitive plays in the game.
“There’s a lot of one-on-ones across the board,” Stoops said, noting battles lost on both the offensive and defensive lines in that loss.
The lack of pop from UK’s defensive line, especially against the potent ground attack of Mississippi State that managed nearly 6 yards a carry, was frustrating to defensive coordinator Matt House.
“At the point of attack we weren’t nearly as physical as we needed to be,” he said. “They out-physicaled us. At all three levels we weren’t physical.
“I thought their backs ran harder than we tackled. I thought their offensive line moved us up front. I thought we lost the edge and didn’t make plays when we had a chance to in the secondary.”
Kentucky has another chance to make some of those competitive plays starting Saturday against a struggling Tennessee team. The Volunteers (3-4, 0-4) have lost three in a row and haven’t scored an offensive touchdown since Sept. 23.
“You have to win your fair share (of competitive plays) to win football games,” Stoops said.
“We have to get back to doing that. We have plenty of players that are capable of winning one-on-one battles and we didn’t win a whole bunch of them this past week on either side of the ball.”
On his weekly call-in show, Stoops said quarterback Luke Wright, who had a seizure on the sideline and collapsed during the Missouri game, is back at practice and doing fine now. The UK coach also said that running back A.J. Rose had gotten “banged up” at Mississippi State on Saturday and offered no timetable for his return. On Twitter, Rose’s father, Asim Rose Sr., called the injury a “minor sprain.”
Offensive tackle Landon Young, who also was injured at Mississippi State, practiced Tuesday and said he’ll be ready to play Saturday.
Tennessee at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. (SEC)
Records: Kentucky (5-2, 2-2 SEC); Tennessee (3-4, 0-4 SEC)