Throughout the middle of the 2018 Kentucky football campaign, Wildcats backers fretted that UK’s sputtering offense was eventually going to undermine the Cats’ stout defense and derail what was shaping up as a special season.
On a chilly autumn Saturday in a familiar UK football house of horrors, the worst fears of Kentucky fans came true.
Tennessee (5-5, 1-4 SEC) held No. 11 Kentucky (7-3, 5-3 SEC) to 68 yards of first-half offense and opened a 17-0 halftime lead that UK’s punchless attack had no hope to overcome. The result was a 24-7 UT victory over UK before an announced Neyland Stadium crowd of 95,258.
In a venue where so many prior UK football teams have endured heartache, the Volunteers hung an especially painful defeat on the Wildcats. The loss knocked Kentucky from consideration for what would have been UK’s first major bowl since the 1952 Cotton Bowl.
It means there will be no 10-win regular season for the Cats. It was Kentucky’s 17th straight defeat in Neyland Stadium. For UK backers, it was yet another loss to a team they dislike and are bone-weary of losing to.
“Not a very good effort,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said afterward. “It really starts with me and ends with me. I didn’t have (the team) prepared. So, not a good enough job by myself.”
It was certainly not a good enough job by the UK offense.
The Cats finished with a paltry 262 yards of total offense. It is the third time in the past five games the Wildcats have failed to crack 300 total yards.
Early in the season, when Kentucky was compiling SEC wins over Florida, Mississippi State and South Carolina, the Cats were controlling games with a punishing rushing attack.
Starting in the second half of the South Carolina game, that has largely gone away. Tennessee held Kentucky star running back Benny Snell to 81 yards on 20 carries. It was the fifth time in the past six games Snell has failed to crack 100 yards rushing.
So what’s gone wrong?
“We’re killing ourselves,” Kentucky senior tight end C.J. Conrad said. “On offense, you need all 11 guys on the same page. All it takes is one guy (not on the same page) and the play doesn’t work. We’ve been having a lot of that lately.”
On Saturday, five Kentucky drives reached Tennessee territory. Those five drives yielded a missed field goal, a blocked field goal, a fumble, an interception and a 19-yard Terry Wilson touchdown pass to Conrad.
“We were on that side of the (field) five times and we came away with one touchdown. That’s ridiculous,” UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said.
In a sense, Kentucky still has not replaced the stretch-the-field explosiveness it lost after the 2016 season when running back Boom Williams and wide receiver Jeff Badet both departed.
UK’s plan entering the season was to pound away at defenses with Snell, then with the run established, hit defenses with big plays off play-action passing.
In that sense, the fact that Kentucky’s running game has been stymied has also killed its best shot at big plays through the air.
“It’s my job to make sure we create some more explosive plays,” Gran said. “We’re not doing that right now and that’s on me. I’ve got to do something to help our kids.”
When an offense goes stagnant, the knee-jerk reaction is a call to change quarterbacks. But is there really any reason to suggest UK has a better option than Wilson?
I haven’t seen it.
UK has tried working different wide receivers into the mix in the form of the physical Ahmad Wagner and the fleet Zy’aire Hughes to take some of the pressure off go-to receiver Lynn Bowden.
Yet there is no reason to think a different wide-receiver rotation will alter the arc of the Kentucky season.
What Kentucky really needs to do is correct whatever has gone wrong in the running attack. Better blocking leading to more production from Snell would take pressure off Wilson and open up the passing game.
Failing to beat Tennessee takes some bloom off the Kentucky football rose.
Still, back in the summer, if someone had offered Kentucky fans a 9-3 season, a winning SEC record and a streak-busting victory at Florida, 100 percent would have taken it.
However, to close out the season with victories over a good Middle Tennessee State team and a bad Louisville one, Kentucky has to unravel the mystery of why its offense has gone so stagnant.
Said Gran: “We’ve got a chance to come back and win No. 8 next week. Win No. 9 the next week after that and then you have a chance at a bowl game. So it’s my job to get them ready to go for the next one and then we’ll move on after that.”
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory