Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s 20-14 overtime loss at Texas A&M:
1. Suddenly, the offense is in need of a quick fix.
Kentucky was off to a 5-0 start. The Cats were ranked 13th in the latest AP Top 25. Star running back Benny Snell was garnering national praise, showing up in various Heisman Trophy contender rankings. Terry Wilson was handling the job at quarterback. The offensive line was picking up multiple SEC Linemen of the Week honors.
Then the Cats failed to score in the second half during last week’s win over South Carolina. And that ineffectiveness carried over into Saturday night at Kyle Field. Facing the nation’s sixth-ranked run defense, statistically speaking, Eddie Gran’s ground attack ran into a solid Maroon Aggie wall.
The Cats were held to 178 total yards, their fewest since managing just 160 total yards in a 34-6 loss Nick Saban and Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 1, 2016. They were limited to just eight first downs, their fewest since managing eight way back on Nov. 7, 2015, in a 27-3 loss at Georgia.
The running game is this UK team’s bread-and-butter and the Cats were held to a season-low 70 yards. And the visitors ran just 50 plays, their fewest since the 49 plays they ran against Austin Peay on Nov. 19, 2016. That day, however, Kentucky gained 410 yards on the OVC team.
So went wrong Saturday night in the Lone Star State? Give credit to the Texas A&M defense. Coordinator Mike Elko put together a terrific game plan, rushing four on pass plays, limiting Snell and rallying to the ball when Wilson tired to take off on scrambles. The quarterback was held to 26 yards on just 14 carries.
Gran also kicked himself for talking himself out of a Snell-run call on third-and-two in overtime. The Cats lined up in the wildcat — “13 Jumbo” Gran called it — with Snell to take a direct snap, but they didn’t like what they saw. They had run the ball six times out of that formation, a 100-percent run call. The Cats called time out and switched the play to a pass call. Wilson went back in at quarterback, but ended up taking an eight-yard sack. Miles Butler’s 43-yard field goal hit the crossbar and bounced back. Texas A&M got the ball and won the game.
“I wish I had given it to 26,” Gran said afterward, meaning Snell.
This didn’t start Saturday night, however. It started the second half against South Carolina, where perhaps Will Muschamp and Co. formed the blueprint. Over the last six quarters, plus Saturday night’s overtime, UK has had the football 17 possessions and managed just seven points. Ten of those possessions ended without a first down.
“We didn’t click on offense,” said Snell, who ended up with a season-low 60 yards on just 13 carries. He came into the game averaging 25 carries and 127.8 yards per game.
Stat of the game: In regulation, UK did not snap the football in Texas A&M territory all night.
2. Kentucky’s heroic defense is the real deal.
In fact, given the offense’s night-long struggles, the defense is what kept the Cats in the game and nearly won it. While UK ran just 50 plays, Texas A&M ran 75 plays but managed but 390 yards. Jimbo Fisher’s club had just one sustained drive all night, a 13-play, 70-yard march that ended with a three-yard Kellen Mond to Quartney Davis touchdown pass. The Aggies’ second touchdown came after a 43-yard punt return by Rashauud Paul that set up a 46-yard TD pass from Mond to Jace Sternberger that came off a tipped pass.
“I was really proud of the defense,” Stoops said.
UK would have lost in regulation had safety Darius West not scooped up a an A&M fumble and motored 40 yards for a touchdown with 4:17 left to tie the score at 14-14. It was West’s second takeaway of the night. He also had an interception in the fourth quarter, his third interception of the season.
Was the defense frustrated by the offense’s lack of production? The defensive players we talked to after the game said absolutely not. Linebacker Kash Daniel, who sat out the first half after being ejected for targeting in the second half last week against South Carolina, said there might have been some finger-pointing in past years. That won’t happen this year.
“Some games they’ve helped us, and some games we’ve helped them,” said safety Mike Edwards.
Overall, it was a winning performance from a unit that came into the game ranked 12th nationally in total defense. True freshman Chris Oats played particularly well filling in for Daniel in the first half. When not being held, Allen was disruptive from the edge. And Edwards had several tackles behind the line on run blitzes.
3. The bye week comes at a good time.
After a loss like this overtime loss on a Saturday night on the road, the Cats might have wanted to get right back on the field next Saturday for (a) redemption and (b) rid themselves of the taste of the missed opportunity. Instead, the guess here is that they will welcome the off week.
For starters, they are beat up. Take center Drake Jackson, who suffered a first half groin injury but was able to return for the second half. Take Allen, who was wearing a brace on his right arm and carrying an ice pack. He was noticeably dragging after a couple of plays late in the game.
“We’re pretty beat up,” he said.
“I think it comes at a good time,” said Daniel. “We’ve played six games, get a week off, and then play six games. I like that.”
UK also needs the extra week to examine what’s going on with the offense? Are defenses playing Gran’s offense differently? Is execution not as crisp? Have the Cats become too predictable or, as on the third-and-2, are they trying too hard not to be predictable?
In his postgame press conference, Stoops said UK entered the game believing it had to throw the football. A&M had shown itself to be stout against the run and the UK staff knew it would be difficult to grind-it-out this night. But the Aggies were able to apply pressure on Wilson with just a four-man rush. And Wilson was often indecisive. Was that because UK receivers were having trouble getting open?
Despite Kentucky’s success, there was a (good) theory out there that at some point in time the Cats were going to have to prove they could throw the football. Maybe they would fall behind. Maybe their running game would be bottled up. Either way, they were going to have to move the football via the pass. Saturday night, at least, they couldn’t do that. Wilson was 13-for-20 for just 108 yards, and 54 of those came on a pop-pass/shovel pass to Lynn Bowden that turned into a long touchdown.
“We’ve just got to go back to work,” said Gran.
At least they’ll have an extra week to figure it out.