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Mark Story: Three years into Stoops era, Kentucky still has no offensive identity

Video: Mark Stoops after loss to Louisville

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops talks to media after 38-24 loss to Louisville on Nov. 28, 2015.
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Kentucky coach Mark Stoops talks to media after 38-24 loss to Louisville on Nov. 28, 2015.

At least we know this: The problem wasn’t just Patrick Towles.

After an epic second-half offensive meltdown in Kentucky’s now annual loss to Louisville, one thing should be apparent:

The maladies that have afflicted UK’s attempt to re-install an Air Raid passing attack in the venue where Hal Mumme and Tim Couch first made it famous run much deeper than just its quarterback play.

On a rainy Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium, Louisville threw three first-half interceptions and spotted Kentucky a 24-7 halftime lead. Yet with a season-defining victory one half of football away, the UK offense went AWOL.

After intermission, Kentucky amassed 83 total yards and a whopping two — count ’em, two — first downs.

Meanwhile, buoyed by Bobby Petrino’s halftime adjustments, Louisville put 31 points on the scoreboard in half number two. So Petrino ran his record to 6-0 in the Governor’s Cup rivalry, his Cardinals rallying for a 38-24 win before an announced crowd of 62,512.

It is the second year in a row in which Louisville (7-5) ended Kentucky’s season (5-7) one victory short of bowl eligibility.

“I know the fans are not happy,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said afterward. “I’m not happy. It’s disappointing. It’s tough.”

In his second college start, Kentucky redshirt freshman quarterback Drew Barker played a strong first half, completing 5-of-8 passes for 129 yards.

On UK’s opening drive of the game, Barker converted a 3rd-and-12 with a well-thrown pass to Garrett Johnson on a deep slant that went for 31 yards. Barker converted a 3rd-and-7 by waiting patiently against a Louisville blitz, then dropping off a screen pass to Mikel Horton that went for 28 yards.

It set up a Barker 1-yard TD run.

Louisville interceptions helped the Cats open a 21-0 lead. However, UK lost standout running back Boom Williams to an elbow injury in the first half.

Without Boom, the Cats offense lacked any explosion.

In the second half, plagued by dropped passes and relentless U of L pass rusher Devonte’ Fields (three sacks, six tackles for loss), Barker completed 1-of-14 passes for minus-1 yard.

Kentucky offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said there were big plays available in the U of L secondary, too.

“We had some open guys,” Dawson said. “There were times we didn’t go to them. And there were times (the open receivers) didn’t make the play.”

Now, three years into Stoops’ coaching regime, UK still has not established an offensive identity. The 2015 Wildcats averaged fewer points (20.7) and fewer yards (372) than last season’s (384 yards and 29.2 points).

Kentucky and Stoops face some testing questions.

Question one. Is Stoops truly committed to an Air Raid?

In their head coaching jobs, the Stoops brothers have favored offensive coordinators from the Air Raid tree. Bob Stoops hired Mike Leach at Oklahoma and has Lincoln Riley now; Mike Stoops tabbed Sonny Dykes at Arizona.

Yet, in his three years as UK head man, Mark Stoops often has seemed frustrated when his coordinators, first Neal Brown and now Dawson, have not called plays designed to take pressure off the Kentucky defense.

Question two: If Stoops is committed to the Air Raid, is Dawson the guy to run it?

Stoops said it was too soon Saturday to comment on any potential staff changes. Asked specifically about Dawson, the Kentucky head coach sounded committed to him.

“I absolutely have confidence in Shannon Dawson,” Stoops said. “He’ll get the ship corrected and straightened out.”

Question three: Does Kentucky have a quarterback in its program that can make an Air Raid work?

Towles lost the starting job because he wasn’t accurate enough (55.9 percent completions). We haven’t seen enough of Barker to render any judgments — but 1-of-14 in the second half Saturday was concerning.

“I think both of them are capable,” Dawson said. “Like I said, you’ve got to have a lot of people playing around them.”

Question four: After a season filled with dropped passes, do the Cats have the caliber of receivers it takes to make a spread attack work?

“There’s just an unsettledness to our pass game right now that has to resolve itself for us to be good on offense,” Dawson said. “You’ve got to be able to throw and catch.”

Three years into Kentucky’s planned Air Raid revival, the fact we are talking about UK’s need for better “throwing and catching” is, to say the least, worrisome.

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