John Clay

With its back now to the wall, Kentucky faces a must-win bye week

Mississippi State met the challenge. You bet the Bulldogs did. Backs to the wall, with Kentucky in its backyard and SEC West powers over the horizon, MSU mashed the poor Cats two weeks back in Starkville.

The Men of Muschamp met the challenge. You bet the Gamecocks did. Backs to the wall, with Kentucky in its backyard and job speculation waiting over the horizon, South Carolina mashed the poor Cats on Saturday night in Columbia.

Now it’s Kentucky’s turn to meet the challenge.

“We’ve got to hit the reset button,” said Stoops on Saturday.

No, they have to mash down hard on that reset button.

“We have to fight our way out of this,” Stoops said.

It’s not just that the Wildcats sit 2-3 overall and 0-3 in the SEC heading into the first of two bye weeks in this weirdly-timed season. Stoops’ troops haven’t really been in the game the last two weeks. They haven’t come close to matching their opponents’ sense of urgency.

To be fair, Terry Wilson isn’t walking through that door. UK’s returning starter at quarterback, the juco transfer who helped the Cats to a 10-3 record a year ago, is out for the season. His replacement, grad transfer Sawyer Smith, is banged up. Ailing shoulder. Ailing wrist. Smith hasn’t been the same since he miraculously ran down that Florida defensive back after throwing a third-quarter interception against the Gators.

Amid the Mississippi State cowbells, Smith completed just 15 of 41 passes. With “Snowstorm” blaring and those white towels waving at South Carolina, Smith was just 11 of 32 through the air. By night’s end, he had taken such a pounding that even the Gamecocks became consolers, helping the battered QB to his feet on more than one occasion.

And to say Eddie Gran’s offense has been horrid on third down would be an understatement. A troubling trend continued. UK failed to convert its last five third downs against Florida. It went 1-for-12 at Mississippi State. It came up short on its first nine third downs Saturday. My math says that’s a 1-for-26 stretch.

“You can’t win that way,” Stoops said.

No, you can’t.

“It was as tough probably as my first year here when we were at Florida,” said Gran, referencing a 45-7 drubbing in Gainesville his second game on the job. “Nothing went right. I’ve got to get these guys better prepared. We’ve got to figure out who we are. The off week is coming at the right time. I thought we did a pretty good job that time (2016) when things kind of went to heck in a hand basket.”

Hello again, hand basket.

“We’ve been in worse situations before,” Stoops said.

Faint of heart fans have abandoned the canoe, of course. Those proclaiming Stoops a one-hit wonder conveniently forget the head coach was 13-11 in the SEC over the previous three seasons. By Kentucky standards, that’s Herculean. And there are more than enough winnable games — Arkansas, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, UT Martin and Louisville — left for a fourth straight bowl trip.

My preseason projection had UK 2-3 at this point on the way to 8-4. But I didn’t foresee Wilson being lost to injury. And I certainly thought I’d see more competitive fire from a program that won a New Year’s Day bowl game a year ago. After all the defiant griping and groaning over the summer over the national types predicting Kentucky would fall back to earth, the Cats are on their way to proving those projections correct.

They can ponder that over this off week. So can the coaches. The challenge extends to them, as well. With five games down and seven to go, it’s their job to figure out how to get this team back to the one that held a 21-10 lead after three quarters against a top-10 team in Florida on Sept. 14.

Now that seems so long ago.

Next game

Arkansas at Kentucky

Saturday, Oct. 12 (Time and TV to be announced)

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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