UK Football

Mark Story: Stoops' latest fourth-down gamble — at Vandy — most baffling

Kentucky wide receiver Ryan Timmons (1) caught a pass from Drew Barker for a touchdown in the third quarter of the Kentucky at Vanderbilt football game at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tenn.,, on Nov. 14, 2015. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Kentucky wide receiver Ryan Timmons (1) caught a pass from Drew Barker for a touchdown in the third quarter of the Kentucky at Vanderbilt football game at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tenn.,, on Nov. 14, 2015. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

NASHVILLE — In Kentucky's prior game, a loss at Georgia, Mark Stoops and the Cats gambled and went for it on a fourth-down play near midfield.

When the Wildcats failed to convert early in the third quarter, it left Georgia with a short field that soon yielded a Bulldogs touchdown.

Afterward, Stoops applied the verbal lash to himself.

"It was not a very smart decision by me," he said.

Given that, you would think the last thing — the absolute last thing — Stoops and Kentucky would try in a potentially season-defining game at Vanderbilt was an even more risky, less logical mid-field gamble on fourth down.

You would have been wrong.

With just more than a minute left in the first half Saturday in Vanderbilt Stadium, Kentucky trailed the host Commodores 14-10.

UK had the ball 4th-and-one at the Vandy 49.

The text book of Head Coaching 101 would have instructed one to send the punting unit on the field.

Kentucky didn't.

Maybe you leave the offense out to draw the defense offsides.

UK offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson later said that was the Cats' initial plan.

When the Commodores didn't take the bait, however, the smart play would have been to take a delay of game and punt.

Instead, Kentucky snapped the ball and had quarterback Drew Barker try to take advantage of one-on-one coverage with a deep sideline route to Blake Bone.

It fell incomplete.

Four plays later, using a trick "hidden end" play for a 34-yard touchdown pass, Vanderbilt scored to go ahead 21-10.

It turned out to be the decisive score in a game Kentucky lost 21-17. So the Cats (4-6, 2-6 SEC) left Music City mired in a five-game losing streak.

"A very difficult loss," Stoops said. "Heartbreaking for our team."

UK must now win its final two home games — against 2-8 Charlotte and archrival Louisville — or the Cats will fail to go bowling for a fifth straight season.

Rarely in a college football game — rarely in a college football season — can one coaching decision be said to cost a team a game. Or, potentially, cost a team bowl eligibility.

That is what happened for Kentucky Saturday.

Afterward, an ashen-faced Stoops knew it, too.

"I'm disappointed in that fourth-and-one at midfield," he said.

What made the fourth-down gamble more difficult to fathom is that it came against Vanderbilt. The Commodores (4-6, 2-4) came into Saturday's game with the 13th-rated offense in the SEC.

If you don't give Vanderbilt turnovers or short fields, there's all but no chance they can score.

Yet Kentucky set up one Vandy TD with a Boom Williams fumble at the UK 4-yard line. Barker gave the Commodores a score by throwing a pick-6 that Oren Burks returned 30 yards.

Then Stoops gave the Commodores a short field with his fourth-down gamble — and Vandy converted it into the game-winning points.

Dawson said UK took the fourth-down risk because it thought it saw a favorable matchup that could yield a game-changing play in Kentucky's favor.

"We were talking on the sidelines back and forth," he said. "We decided to take a shot. And we took a shot. And it didn't work out. Obviously, if it would have worked out, it would have been great."

For the second straight year, a promising Kentucky start has yielded a frustrating late-season collapse.

Last year, UK began 5-1 but lost its final six games — albeit against a brutally back-loaded schedule.

This year, Kentucky started 4-1, but is now 4-6. This is worse because it is in the third year of the Stoops coaching regime and in a season when UK has eight home games.

Whatever happens the rest of the way, I'm not in favor of pulling the plug on a second straight Kentucky head coach after only three seasons. But the lack of improvement on display from Kentucky this season is becoming alarming.

So is the fact the UK head coach made the same questionable, game-management mistake two weeks in a row.

"We thought we had a 1-on-1," Stoops said of this week's ill-advised fourth-down gamble. "We thought we would take a shot right there. Poor decision, poor decision. And it was all on me."

You can't blame The Long-Suffering UK Football Fans if they are thinking this morning of an old farmer's saying: There's no education in the second kick of a mule.

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