John Clay

Mark Stoops was hired for his ballyhooed defense. Where is it?

Mark Stoops apologizes for loss

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops says fans deserve better after 44-35 loss to Southern Miss in season opener after leading 35-10.
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Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops says fans deserve better after 44-35 loss to Southern Miss in season opener after leading 35-10.

Of all the dispiriting things that happened in Kentucky’s oh-no-not-again collapse Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium, here is the most jaw-dropping: Southern Miss’ offense snapped the football for 96 plays.

That’s not just a lot of football plays, that’s a ridiculous number of football plays.

That’s the most plays run by a Kentucky opponent since Arkansas came with within one snap of 100 back in 2003. And here’s the thing about that Razorbacks record: Arkansas’ 99 plays came over the span of an epic seven-overtime game. Southern Miss’ 96 plays came in 60 minutes of regulation, the last 30 of which the Golden Eagles thoroughly dominated.

(By the way, Kentucky ran 50 plays.)

So let’s go back to the start. Four years ago, UK AD Mitch Barnhart hired Mark Stoops as Kentucky’s head coach based on Stoops’ performance as defensive coordinator at Florida State. That’s the Stoops MO. He’s a defensive guy, a long-time defensive coordinator, a coach who builds great defenses. And yet Stoops has not been able to build one at Kentucky.

His 2013 defense allowed 31.2 points and 427 yards per game. His 2014 defense allowed 31.3 points and 407 yards per game. Last year’s defense improved to 27.4 points and 394 yards per game. However, all those numbers are higher than any of UK’s defenses in the three years under Stoops’ predecessor, Joker Phillips.

On paper, there were legitimate questions about Kentucky’s 2016 defense, especially after starting defensive tackle Regie Meant (now at Jacksonville State) departed. While the Cats appeared strong in the secondary, their defensive line and linebackers appeared fraught with potential problems.

So Saturday’s outcome wasn’t stunning. Southern Miss won nine games a year ago. It returned a top-flight quarterback and a 1,000-yard rusher. Were you a college football fan and you saw the UK-Southern Miss score flash across your SportsCenter screen Sunday morning, you certainly weren’t shocked.

If you were a UK fan inside the stadium, however, you had witnessed this horror movie before, especially the last half. Kentucky started 2016 the way it ended 2015. UK led Louisville 24-7 at halftime of last year’s season finale. Louisville won 38-24. UK led Southern Miss 35-17 at halftime of this year’s season opener. Southern Miss won 44-35. In its last two games, Kentucky has been outscored 58-0 in the second half.

Louisville was coached by Bobby Petrino, the same man who lobbied for the UK job in 2013 but couldn’t get an interview. Southern Miss’ offense was coordinated by Shannon Dawson, the same coach who called UK’s plays in 2015 only to be fired by Stoops after one season.

If you base your case on Saturday, Dawson wasn’t last year’s problem. The second half was a steady shower of successful Southern Miss rushes. The Golden Eagles produced 20 rushing plays of four-or-more yards, including 19 of five-or-more, 14 of six-or-more, eight of seven-or-more. UK had no plot to stop. On the night, USM rushed for 262 yards, the fifth time in the last seven games Kentucky’s defense has allowed 200-or-more yards rushing.

Afterward, while apologizing to UK’s fans, Stoops fell back on a familiar line, that the offense has to help the defense. And it’s true, after a brilliant first 30 minutes, Eddie Gran’s attack was ineffective in the second half. Of Kentucky’s five second-half possessions, three ended in turnovers, two in punts. The UK offense could not keep its defense off the field.

The UK defense could not get itself off the field either, however. And after Saturday’s one nightmare too many, you can’t help but wonder what’s going on inside Kentucky’s new locker room at halftime. Are other coaches (Petrino/Dawson) making better adjustments? Giving better halftime speeches? Is UK simply being outcoached?

For Stoops, there is a sliver of good news. Eleven games remain. It’s a long season and one game doesn’t make a season. The coach has time to turn it around. And defense is his area of expertise. It’s what he knows. It has been his entire life. It’s why he was hired at Kentucky in the first place.

Most offensive plays run against UK defense since 2002

Date

Opponent

Plays

Yards

YPP

11/1/03

Arkansas*

99

605

6.11

9/3/16

Southern Miss

96

554

5.83

11/12/05

@Vanderbilt

94

514

5.47

9/13/14

@Florida

94

532

5.66

10/8/11

@S Carolina

91

639

7.02

9/28/02

@Florida

89

509

5.72

9/8/07

Kent State

88

453

5.15

9/5/15

UL-Lafayette

88

479

5.44

9/12/92

@Florida

87

541

6.22

9/11/93

Florida

87

486

5.59

10/26/02

Georgia

87

529

6.08

9/3/06

@Louisville

87

631

7.25

10/13/07

LSU

87

403

4.63

* 7 overtimes

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