UK Football

John Clay: Give Dawson time: His confidence, flair suggest best to come with Cats

Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson contemplates the play call from the sideline in the first half. The University of Kentucky hosted Auburn University, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington. Photo by Jonathan Palmer
Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson contemplates the play call from the sideline 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

Making my way through the Keeneland crowd of more than 19,000 on the glorious afternoon that was Friday, I overheard the following comment:

"I can't believe we ran the ball on second down," said the man to his friend. "You've got to throw the ball in that situation."

Welcome to one of the most thankless jobs in America, the job of being an offensive coordinator.

Oh, you can get the big bucks — not head coach big bucks, but close — and there may be a promotion in your future. Ask Neal Brown, Kentucky's offensive coordinator last season who turned that gig into a step up the career ladder as the head coach at Troy this season.

Brown's successor is Shannon Dawson, the Louisiana native with the Air Raid pedigree and the tricky task of coordinating an offense in the cauldron of instant emotions known as social media. It's not a job for the thin of skin.

Take Kentucky's Thursday night loss to Auburn. Down 30-27, needing a field goal to force overtime, and without benefit of timeouts, the Cats drove from their 15-yard line to a first down at their 49. There, quarterback Patrick Towles threw a five-yard pass to Dorian Baker setting up a second-and-five.

There, Dawson called a running play. Yes, a running play!

Personally, I had no problem with the call. Didn't then; don't now. There is such a thing as the element of surprise. The stats suggested Auburn was vulnerable against the run. Plus, the call got the football in the hands of Boom Williams, UK's most explosive player. If the play works, if Williams pops into the secondary, he likely puts kicker Austin MacGinnis in position for the game-tying field goal.

It didn't work. Williams was dropped after a two-yard gain. The clock ran. Two hurried snaps later, Towles was sacked on fourth down. Auburn won. Kentucky lost. Second-guessing jumped to overdrive.

I had more of a problem with Dawson's third-down call. Third-and-three, he called a deep pass to Jeff Badet down the left sideline. The ball fell incomplete, setting up the do-or-die fourth down. But that's been Dawson's mode of operation. He likes a mix of the run and the vertical pass. He stayed true to that on the final possession.

The final stats showed Kentucky gained 497 total yards Thursday, 90 more than the victors. On a normal night, gaining close to 500 yards will earn a team a W. Kentucky football isn't always normal and Thursday wasn't a normal night. The Cats couldn't stop the Tigers on third down. They gave up 23 points in the first half. The band Dawes said it best: Things happen, that's all they ever do.

Dawson is taking the flak — too much of it — because, well, that's the way of the world when it comes to the guy who calls the plays. But let's try something different. Let's take a deep breath.

This is Dawson's first year as an offensive coordinator. Though he had the title at West Virginia, he was really Dana Holgorsen's chief assistant and confidant. If Mark Stoops is still learning in his first job as head coach, Dawson is still learning in his first job calling the plays.


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He has the makings of an offense that could be really good. Boom is a sophomore. Wide receivers Baker, Badet and Garrett Johnson are all sophomores. Tight end C.J. Conrad is a true freshman. Towles has started 18 college football games. Trend-spotters would tell you the best days for this offense are ahead.

I think UK's coordinator is going to be good too and that second-down call, the one that didn't work, confirmed that belief. I liked that Dawson had the confidence to make that call. I liked that he didn't opt for what everyone else would do in that situation. These days, that's what gets you beat.

One day in the future, that play call — or a similar one — is going to work and we'll have something else, something better to talk about.

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