Mark Story

A five-point plan to get the Kentucky football season back on track

Let’s be blunt: If Kentucky plays the rest of its football season the way the Wildcats did in Saturday night’s 24-7 loss at South Carolina, there’s a very good chance UK will go 3-9.

It is impossible to overstate what a letdown such a futile showing would be coming in the season immediately after UK’s 10-3 breakthrough in 2018.

The good news is that Kentucky (2-3, 0-3) still has seven games left. Even with the daunting challenge of a trip to No. 3 Georgia (Oct. 19) followed by facing a quality Missouri team (Oct. 26), the more “manageable” part of the UK schedule is still ahead.

The question is whether Mark Stoops can rally his dispirited troops to take advantage. Let’s examine five things UK can do to get its football season back on track.

1.) Give Sawyer Smith time to get healthy.

With Terry Wilson out for the season, it seems Smith is the only quarterback on the UK roster that the Wildcats coaches trust enough to play.

The graduate transfer from Troy appeared to hurt the wrist on his throwing hand while making a post-interception tackle in the third quarter of UK’s 29-21 loss against Florida. One game later, he seemed to injure the shoulder above his throwing arm in the loss at Mississippi State.

As a result, Smith has “not looked right” since the first half of the Florida game. He was 15-for-42 passing in the 28-13 defeat at Mississippi State. He was 11 of 32 in the loss at South Carolina.

Yet even with Smith clearly looking like damaged goods, UK did not insert one of its two other healthy scholarship quarterbacks, Walker Wood or Amani Gilmore, into either game.

If Smith is the only viable option at QB, Kentucky needs to execute a complex task: Get him healthy enough to throw effectively, yet do so while UK’s mathematical chances at bowl eligibility remain viable.

Should that mean trying to steal the Wildcats’ next game, against Arkansas Oct. 12, without Smith to give the QB extra healing time, Kentucky has historically had a formula to make that work.

2.) Use more Lynn Bowden in the wildcat formation, but don’t bet the whole season on it.

In 2011, without a healthy scholarship quarterback, Kentucky shifted wide receiver Matt Roark to quarterback for its season finale against Tennessee and stunned the Volunteers with a streak-busting 10-7 upset.

Three years earlier, with its offense decimated by injuries, UK moved playmaking wideout Randall Cobb to quarterback and the true freshman directed the Wildcats to a 14-13 win at Mississippi State that made the 2008 Cats bowl-eligible.

If past Kentucky teams could win with wide receivers at QB, there’s every reason to think the dynamic Bowden could win at least one game as an emergency signal-caller.

However, UK history also suggests the longer you go with a wide receiver at quarterback, the less effective it becomes. After that first win with Cobb at QB, Kentucky went 0-3 the rest of the 2008 regular season.

3.) Challenge the offensive line to play to the level of its preseason hype.

Entering the season, the conventional wisdom was that the strength of the Kentucky offense was its veteran front line.

So far, however, Kentucky has struggled to convert short-yardage situations on third down and has been unable to consistently impose its will at the line of scrimmage in the running game.

That trend needs to change.

4.) Challenge the defensive line to play to the level of its preseason hype.

Entering the season, the conventional wisdom was that the strength of the Kentucky defense was its veteran front line.

The last two weeks, however, Kentucky has allowed not one, but two 100-plus yard rushers in both games. Mississippi State’s Garrett Shrader ran for 125 yards and Kylin Hill 120; South Carolina’s Tavien Feaster ran for 107 yards and Rico Dowdle 102.

That trend needs to stop.

5.) Play with urgency the rest of the way.

In its road losses at Mississippi State and South Carolina, Kentucky didn’t seem to match the zeal of desperate teams in must-win situations on their home fields.

Going forward, UK needs to play like the desperate team.

If it does, Kentucky’s remaining schedule is target-rich with victory opportunities. It includes:

Arkansas, which has lost 13 SEC games in a row;

Tennessee, which has lost 16 of its past 18 SEC games;

Vanderbilt, which is 5-17 in its last 22 games against Power Five conference foes;

Tennessee Martin, an FCS team;

And Louisville, which has lost its past 13 games vs. Power Five conference teams.

As grim as things look now, if Kentucky plays with motivated purpose — and can get Smith healthy enough to function at QB — the opportunity to salvage the Wildcats’ season is very much alive.

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Next game

Arkansas at Kentucky

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12 (SEC Network)

Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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