UK Football

John Clay: Stoops and Co. have a long way to go

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops late in the game.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops late in the game. Herald-Leader

When Kentucky began the season 5-1 and the fans and experts were patting Mark Stoops on the back, and the administration was lining up a second contract extension in less than two years, consensus held this was a much-improved football team.

Four games later, all losses, including the most recent, Saturday's 63-31 drubbing by visiting Georgia, we must ask if we were operating under a false assumption.

Is this really an improved football team? Is Stoops really making progress, or have the advancements been overvalued by a fan base and an administration that want so badly for Kentucky to finally succeed at football?

After all, Saturday's final game at the "old" Commonwealth Stadium was bereft of any sort of improvement.

"Very embarrassing effort by our team, our coaching staff, starting with myself," is the way Stoops began his post-game news conference.

If you count a kickoff return it touched before fumbling away, Georgia possessed the football 12 times. One possession it took a knee at the end of the first half. Its final possession was stopped by the final horn. The remaining nine times, Georgia scored touchdowns.

No punts. No offensive turnovers. Not even a field goal. The Bulldogs were a perfect eight-for-eight on third-down conversions, prompting a media member to ask Stoops, a former defensive coordinator, if he had ever been part of a game in which his defense failed to get a single stop?

"I can't recall playing defense like that, no," said the head coach.

To be fair, the Cats fell victim to a perfect storm. Georgia was seething from one of the most dispiriting defeats of the Mark Richt era, an unexpected 38-20 loss to a Florida program thought to be a day or two away from firing its head coach. Kentucky just happened to be next.

Still, the 63 points were not just the most allowed in Stoops' two seasons, but the most the Bulldogs had scored in an SEC game since 1942.

And it wasn't just defense. Freshman Isaiah McKenzie returned the opening kickoff 90 yards for a Georgia touchdown. In the third quarter, McKenzie returned a punt 59 yards for a touchdown.

"That kind of set the tone," admitted special teams coach Craig Naivar when asked about the first of the two.

Now, the tone of this Kentucky football season has changed. The high hopes of the first six games have been quashed by the last four. A 41-3 trouncing at LSU began a stretch of three rotten performances in four outings.

The Cats did manage to stay within shouting distance of No. 1-ranked Mississippi State in a 45-31 loss two weeks back, which was followed by Stoops being awarded another contract extension. What followed, however, was a tepid offensive showing in a 20-10 setback at Missouri, before the Swiss cheese Saturday for the Kentucky defense.

Are the Cats simply worn down — and out? It has been a long season, after all, and we saw a bit of this last season when on successive weekends down the stretch, UK fell 48-17 to Missouri, 22-6 at Vanderbilt, 59-17 at Georgia, then 27-14 to Tennessee.

"It is a tough grind, but it is what it is," Stoops said. "We've got to be able to respond."

Or was the early success more mirage than magic? The Florida that Kentucky played to three overtimes in Gainesville was considered an underachiever until it stunned the Dawgs. South Carolina has made a habit of losing the same sort of lead it held on UK back on Oct. 4 before falling 45-38. Vanderbilt is Vanderbilt.

"We've got our two biggest rivals left," Stoops said, "so we'll see if we can regroup."

More likely, the Cats are improved in a league where improvement is not nearly enough. You need drastic improvement. You need continued, consistent drastic improvement. One recruiting class won't do it. Two contract extensions won't do it.

Continuing to bring in better players will do it. Coaching those players better will do it. And in both those areas, to compete with the best, Kentucky football still has a long way to go.

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