UK Football

Stoops not second-guessing Kentucky's late play calls against Auburn

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops talks with official in the first half. The University of Kentucky hosted Auburn University, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington. Photo by Jonathan Palmer
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops talks with official in the first half. The University of Kentucky hosted Auburn University, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington. Photo by Jonathan Palmer Herald-Leader

Some days you're a genius and some days you're a dunce.

It's all about whether or not the play works.

And on Thursday night against Auburn, Shannon Dawson's called run play on the final series didn't leave him wearing the hat he was expecting.

With no timeouts and a minute to play, Kentucky had second-and-5 at the Tigers' 46-yard line.

Instead of the 15-yard gain (or more) Dawson envisioned, it turned into a shoestring tackle and a mere 2-yard gain for Boom Williams as nearly 20 seconds ran off the clock in what could've been the tying or go-ahead drive.

The call left both the offensive coordinator and Coach Mark Stoops answering questions after the 30-27 loss to Auburn at Commonwealth Stadium.

Dawson knew the queries were coming, and as it turns out, he'd make that call again.

"Oh, yeah. In cover-two? Absolutely," he said of the Tigers' defensive formation where they were playing two safeties in a loose box. "I felt in that situation, we had time. We were on the 50-yard line. We were moving the ball well and we had two more shots at it.

"You take a chance right there. And I've had those pop. I mean ultimately it didn't work. That's my job. I'll take the heat for it. I have no issue with that."

His line of thinking goes back to the Florida loss a few weeks ago when Kentucky all but abandoned the run on the final drive and fell flat.

"If we would've stuck with (the run), we probably would've won the game," Dawson said of the loss to the Gators. "This game, I didn't, and it didn't work, and we didn't win the game. It goes both ways. All you can do is try to call plays based on your best possible chances of moving the football."

Kentucky appeared to be scrambling with little time remaining for its final two plays of the game.

"Ultimately it was a bad call (because) it didn't work," Dawson said. "I'll take 100 percent blame for that, no doubt. In hindsight, when things don't work, I always wish I had called something else."

Stoops said everyone was clear that UK was out of timeouts in that scenario.

And the head coach seemed fine with the play call after the game.

"You've seen us before run the ball on third down and 15 and get the first down and you praised them. Right?" Stoops asked the reporter.

This time it "didn't work. So it's real easy to second guess him. I don't," Stoops continued. "We were playing two high, and we thought we could split them. If we split them for 12 yards, then we're sitting in here saying, well, that's a genius call. So, it didn't work. We still had two more opportunities to get the first down."

Kicking struggles may be magnified

Kentucky is about to face two of the conference's top kickoff return teams, which means the Cats are going to need their kicker to heal fast.

Sophomore Austin MacGinnis has recovered enough from a groin injury that he was able to kick extra points and field goals in UK's loss to Auburn, but backup Miles Butler was brought in for kickoff duties.

MacGinnis averaged 63.2 yards on his kickoffs (with eight touchbacks) compared to Butler, who averaged 60.5 yards on 11 kickoffs with zero touchbacks.

"It makes a big difference," Coach Mark Stoops said after the Auburn game, where UK's average starting field position was its own 24-yard line compared to the Tigers, whose average field position was at their 33-yard line. "We're behind the eight-ball because they're getting too good a field position because we're not kicking the ball very good. Punts or kickoffs. In games like this, it's huge."

It only gets bigger in the next two weeks against Mississippi State and Tennessee, the only teams in the Southeastern Conference to return kickoffs for touchdowns.

The Bulldogs have Brandon Holloway, who is fourth in the league in average returns yardage with 29.4 a game and a touchdown.

The Volunteers have Evan Berry, who averages 39.3 yards a return, which is second best in the nation, along with two touchdowns so far. As a team, Tennessee is second in the country in kickoff returns averaging 37.3 yards.

As Stoops pointed out, Kentucky also is struggling in the punt game, with senior Landon Foster averaging 40.2 yards a punt, which is 12th in the league overall.

His 40.2 yards per punt average is lower than at any time in his Kentucky career. As a freshman, he averaged 42.9 yards a punt, and 22 of those went for 50-plus yards. As a sophomore, Foster averaged 41.3 before increasing to 42.6 yards a season ago.

Foster pinned nearly 41 percent of his punts inside the 20-yard line last year compared to just 21.4 percent this season.

The Volunteers are second in the league in punt returns, averaging 16.3 yards with one touchdown. Mississippi State also has a score on a punt return this season.

News and notes

Kentucky sophomore Boom Williams is just 58 yards shy of hitting 1,000 career yards rushing.

■ UK's two losses this year are by a combined eight points.

■ All eight of UK's games this season have been decided by eight points or fewer. The last time the Cats had eight straight games decided by such a slim margin was in 1975.

■ In SEC play, Kentucky's opponents have scored 17 points off Cats miscues while UK has managed just three points off opponents' mistakes.

■ Kentucky's offense is converting on 50 percent of its third-down plays in the first half. That number drops to 27.3 percent in the second half.

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