UK Football

UK football notes: Dawson encourages playing with 'more reckless abandonment,' plus five Cats to watch against Missouri

UK'S  11-J.D. Harmon celebrated his interception with Kentucky Wildcats defensive back Chris Westry (21)  as the University of Kentucky played the University of Florida at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, September 19, 2015. This is third quarter action. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
UK'S 11-J.D. Harmon celebrated his interception with Kentucky Wildcats defensive back Chris Westry (21) as the University of Kentucky played the University of Florida at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, September 19, 2015. This is third quarter action. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

It seems a tad unconventional, but after the loss to Florida last weekend in which Kentucky's coaches saw players getting tighter and tighter as the game went on, they urged the players to stop trying so hard.

"What I told the guys this week is, 'We need to care a little less,'" offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "We need to care a little less and go out there and play a little looser."

If fans gasped when they heard it, Dawson doesn't care.

"We got a lot of young guys out there," he said of UK's 29th consecutive loss to Florida. "It was a big game. We wanted to win the game. We wanted to show Big Blue Nation, to the world in the worst way possible — coaches and players — and we failed. We failed because we just tried too damn hard."

So he wants them to care less and play with "more reckless abandonment" when the Cats take on No. 25 Missouri on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.

This is not a new philosophy born out of a loss for the offensive coordinator. He was discussing the same idea in April after the Cats wrapped up spring football.

"I believe the game is meant to be played relatively loosely," he told the Herald-Leader. "I've always believed if you can somehow get kids to play the way they're playing in a pickup game, where everything is a lot looser then you get a faster person, a clearer thinker, you just get instinctive play."

He added later that it also means he can't lose it when players make mistakes: "All of that comes full circle to me not panicking when they mess up. A kid's got to be able to drop a ball and me not treat him like he murdered a small village."

Right now he sees a group that's scared to make a mistake.

So against Missouri (3-0, 0-0 Southeastern Conference), he isn't going to stress precise passes or perfect blocks.

He's not going to stress at all.

He wants to see players playing like they would in practice.

"We just need to go out there and put the ball down and play like nobody's in the stadium, and we'll be fine," he said of the Cats' offense, which ranks 103rd nationally, averaging 358.3 yards a game.

Dawson's offense is last in the league in first downs, last in third-down conversions and among the bottom in scoring (25 points a game), rushing (166.7 yards a game) and passing (191.7).

In some ways, it seemed as though Dawson was speaking directly to quarterback Patrick Towles, who had the worst game of his career against Florida, completing just 33.3 percent of his passes for 126 yards with two interceptions.

The quarterback and his coach had a long talk Sunday.

"Just going out and playing, not caring too much, just going out and making plays and having fun out there," Towles said this week. "And I think Saturday there were some points out there where I wasn't. I was a little uptight for sure."

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said all players walk a fine line between being ready and being too ready.

"Each player needs to find that," he said. "I know our guys practice hard and I know they care, and I know they're amped up to go play."

Cats to watch

Five UK players to keep an eye on versus Missouri:

Ryan Flannigan: The weakside linebacker, the Cats' second-leading returning tackler last season with 57, was all the talk of spring football for his impressive, improved play. Can he be a difference maker against a Missouri offense that has been struggling? Stoops noted that Flannigan has had to knock some rust off this week, but the senior is expecting to make a big splash in his return.

J.D. Harmon: It seems like a UK lifetime ago, but Harmon had one of his best games against Missouri in 2012 with two interceptions. He's coming off a pick in the end zone against Florida and leads UK with two of them this year.

C.J. Johnson: If defensive tackle Regie Meant is indeed out with a shoulder injury, Kentucky is going to need Johnson to become an anchor for the defensive line. The senior, predominantly a third-down stopper last season, has seven tackles this season, six coming in the last game against the Gators. Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot called the player "quick twitch and explosive."

Patrick Towles: The UK quarterback is coming off his worst game as a Wildcat, completing just 33.3 percent of his passes for 126 yards and two picks. Can he rebound from that and beat a ranked opponent? Last season, Towles struggled early against the Tigers and completed just 41 percent of his passes for 158 yards with a TD and an interception. Missouri is third in the nation (and leads the SEC by a wide margin) in pass defense, allowing just 112 yards a game.

UK offensive line: After giving up just four sacks in the first two games, the Cats' line yielded six to an aggressive Gators defensive front. They likely will have their hands full again this week against Missouri, which has had at least nine tackles for loss in every game this season. The Tigers are paced by sophomore Charles Harris, who leads the league and is second in the nation in tackles for loss. They also have senior linebacker Kentrell Brothers, who leads the nation in tackles with 42, including three for loss, two interceptions, two blocked kicks and one pass breakup.

Playing for keeps

It's probably been an interesting week to be an underperforming veteran at Kentucky (2-1, 1-1). Buried in the middle of his news conference on Monday, Stoops made it clear that he would be having chats with several of them.

"We're not going to stay the same," he said after the 14-9 loss to Florida. "We're going to move forward, going to get better, and we gotta get players in there that are going to make plays. And even some older guys that I'm going to talk to individually that I know can play better, and if they don't, we're going to move on."

Later during the week, Stoops clarified that the players involved are on both sides of the ball and that those talks had taken place.

"I'm not going to get into detail about which guys or anything like that," he said, adding "there's competition going on at a lot of spots."

Notes of note

■ Kentucky, which earned its first road win in 22 tries at South Carolina two weeks ago, will meet a Missouri team that owns an 11-game road winning streak dating back to Sept. 21, 2013. It's the third-longest streak in the nation behind only Ohio State and Florida State.

■ Kentucky has struggled to put up points in the second half this season and the Tigers don't sound like they will yield many, outscoring opponents 41-3 in the second half this season.

■ Missouri has blocked a punt for a safety and blocked an extra point already this season.

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