UK Football

John Clay: Missouri gives Kentucky lesson in maturity

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops contests a call during the second half. The University of Missouri hosted the University of Kentucky, Saturday, Nov. 01, 2014 at Faurot Field in Columbia. Photo by Derek Poore
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops contests a call during the second half. The University of Missouri hosted the University of Kentucky, Saturday, Nov. 01, 2014 at Faurot Field in Columbia. Photo by Derek Poore Herald-Leader

COLUMBIA, Mo. — For the long-suffering Kentucky football fan, it's an all too familiar script. New coach arrives. New coach grabs some traction, starts nudging the program forward. New coach is awarded contract extension. Flat tire appears.

So it was with Kentucky's trip to Missouri's Faurot Field on Saturday. Seeking their sixth win of the season and first true road win since 2010, the Cats were also seeking to build on last week's credible showing against No. 1-ranked Mississippi State, a performance that helped Coach Mark Stoops earn a contract extension.

Instead of eating UK's dust, however, Missouri forced the Cats to pump the brakes, laying a 20-10 educational experience on Mark Stoops' Cats.

"They beat us in every area," Stoops said outside the losing locker room. "They were a tougher football team than we were."

Mizzou was the more mature football team. Gary Pinkel's club lacks some important skill sets from last year's SEC East champions, but the Tigers know what's what. They're solid in every area. They don't turn the ball over and they boast a great pass rush. They refuse to flinch.

Home losses to Indiana (31-27) and Georgia (34-0) didn't derail Mizzou's mission. The Tigers smacked Florida in The Swamp, took care of business against Vanderbilt, then provided Kentucky the textbook of a resourceful football program.

"We won a lot of games a few years back scoring in the 40s," said Pinkel, whose 4-1 team now leads the SEC East again. "We're calling the game a little different."

On the flip side, Kentucky called a much different game than last Saturday against the top-ranked Bulldogs. Quarterback Patrick Towles threw for 390 yards that day. Through two quarters in Columbia, Towles had thrown for 14 yards on six pass attempts.

"We didn't have that many plays in the first half because we couldn't make first downs," said offensive coordinator Neal Brown, whose team trailed 14-3 at the half.

The Air Raid opened with a ground-game focus to negate Mizzou's pass rush and a secondary the UK staff considered superior to Mississippi State's secondary. Once the home defenders started stopping UK's run, the Cats didn't have an effective Plan B.

"We weren't disciplined enough," Brown said.

Glaring examples were a pair of false-start penalties in the first half. The first turned a third-and-3 into a third-and-8. The second turned a third-and-5 into a third-and-10. Both times, UK failed to pick up the first down.

In fact, Kentucky's failure to get that coveted number "six" for bowl eligibility had much to do with the number "three" — on both sides of the ball.

Missouri converted seven of 10 third downs on the Kentucky defense in the first half, 10 of 20 for the game. Kentucky's offense failed to convert a third down on four first-half attempts, and converted just two of 16 for the long afternoon that stretched into evening.

"You're not going to win football games doing that," Brown said.

As for Stoops, he seemed more discouraged by his team's energy and effort. Instead of a spring in their step, the Cats started flat-footed, as if playing so well last week against Mississippi State would automatically mean a win at Missouri.

"Very disappointed in our effort. We really got beat from beginning to the end," said the head coach, who added later, "I have to be careful because I'm very frustrated right now and I want to go off."

Last Saturday's performance was surely the reason why Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart announced Stoops' contract extension through the 2019 season, on Friday rather than Monday when you would run the risk of a Saturday stinker.

Still, just as Barnhart judged Stoops on 20 games, it isn't fair to put too much emphasis on one gutter ball. Saturday notwithstanding, there's no doubt Stoops is making progress.

Actually, Missouri may have done the Cats a favor. The Tigers showed Kentucky what it looks like to be a mature football program.