Mark Story

Offense dooming UK to repeat history

Rich Brooks began this season spitting in the eye of Kentucky football history.

In spite of massive graduation losses from one of the most potent offenses in Kentucky history, the UK coach publicly declared this season's goal was the historically rare third straight winning season.

After Saturday's dispiriting (albeit annual) loss to South Carolina, we are seeing again just why Kentucky has not been able to have three straight winning years since 1954-56.

The margin of error for winning in football at UK is thinner than skim milk.

At 4-2, the Cats still have a more than viable chance to make a third straight bowl trip. Yet if the Wildcats don't beat suddenly resurgent Arkansas on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium, there is also a realistic chance Kentucky won't win another football game in 2008.

"We haven't gotten as much better, as we've gone through the season, as we've needed to," Brooks said Monday.

Against decent competition, UK has shown next to no capa city for moving the football.

In its three games so far against BCS conference schools — Louisville, Alabama and South Carolina — Kentucky is averaging a meager 235 yards a game of total offense.

The Cats have scored a combined seven touchdowns in the three games. Of those, three have been scored by the UK defense. Two others came as a result of short fields after the Kentucky defense forced turnovers.

To a degree that has surprised me — but probably shouldn't have in the mean-spirited, manic-depressive world of the Internet message board — a segment of UK fandom has been teeing off on offensive coordinator Joker Phillips.

Which is silly.

UK has the same playcaller now that it had last year when it scored 35 points or more nine times in 13 games. So what are we to think, Joker took stupid pills over the winter?

Kentucky's offensive issue in 2008 is not the playcaller.

Part of the problem is that the famously thin margin of error to winning football at Kentucky has reared up on the side of the ball where this season's Cats could least afford it.

Curtis Pulley, UK's presumptive starting quarterback, didn't even make it to fall practice because of his lack of personal discipline.

When Brooks boasted in the pre-season of the strongest offensive line of his Kentucky tenure, he anticipated having four players with substantial starting experience — tackles Garry Williams and JustinJeffries; guards Christian Johnson and Zipp Duncan — working together.

Well, Johnson never played a down this season because of injury and academic problems. Because both have been hurt at different times, Williams and Jeffries have played all of one full game together in 2008.

Given that, it's hardly a surprise that the Kentucky running game hasn't even worked up to a walk.

Now, Kentucky has lost Dicky Lyons Jr., the team's only proven playmaker at wide receiver and its spiritual leader, to a season-ending knee injury.

As is always the case when an offense struggles, the starting quarterback is under siege.

Before a disappointing performance against South Carolina, I thought Mike Hartline had been solid. But it is also true that Hart line appears to be a manage-the-game kind of QB on a team that lacks the surrounding playmakers necessary for that kind of quarterback to succeed.

The problem with giving up on Hartline, however, is that his backup is a true freshman who has missed a good bit of this season (and this season's practice time) because of an ankle injury.

With Lyons injured, that true freshman backup quarterback, Randall Cobb, also now happens to be the best receiver left on the active UK roster.

It's asking an awful lot of a true freshman who has been injured and who is learning two positions to go into crucial Southeastern Conference games and read coverages, recognize blitzes and call pass protections.

"Obviously, it would be easier to give Randall snaps at quarterback if Dicky were healthy," Brooks said. "Right now, he's probably our best receiver.

"So," Brooks joked, "you want to help me on this one?"

Since he asked, I'd start Hartline under center against Arkansas. If the offense doesn't move in the first quarter, I'd try Cobb at QB as a change of pace.

For Kentucky football, there is too much at stake Saturday not to pull out every stop for victory.

Beat Arkansas, and that history-defying third-straight bowl game becomes likely.

Lose to the Hogs, and, well, even when you are right to spit in the eye of history, sometimes history spits back.