Sidelines with John Clay

Three thoughts from Kentucky football’s collapse of an opener

Cat Walk for UK-Southern Miss home opener

The Kentucky football team arrives for the season opener against Southern Miss.
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The Kentucky football team arrives for the season opener against Southern Miss.

Three quick things from Kentucky’s 44-35 loss to Southern Miss in Saturday’s season-opener:

1. It was a bad night for Mark Stoops

A very bad night. An awfully bad night. To be an SEC team up 35-10 in the second quarter and be blitzed 34-0 the rest of the way by the visitors from Conference-USA was enough to force the head coach to feel the need to issue a public apology to the fans afterward.

“They deserve better,” he said.

Truth be told, the fan base was a big question coming into the game. An announced crowd of 57,230 attended the opener, though ticket give-aways and promotions were used to get to that total. Unless the Cats can pull an upset over Florida — a team it has lost to 29 straight years — next week in The Swamp, there doesn’t figure to be a big crowd when UK returns home to face New Mexico State on Sept. 17.

In the meantime, Stoops has to focus on a defense that had no answers for Southern Miss in the second half. Time after time, down after down, the visitors ran the football at and through UK defenders. Pre-game, the book on UK was that the defense, especially the front seven, could be a problem area. That proved to be true.

2. It was a good night for Shannon Dawson

Fired by Mark Stoops after one year as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator, Dawson caught on with Southern Miss in February after the Golden Eagles’ head coach Todd Monken left to become offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Bucs and Jay Hopson was hired as the new USM head coach.

Dawson inherited an offense that scored 50-or-more points five games last season and one of the nation’s better quarterbacks in Nick Mullens. Still, USM trailed by 24 points when Mullens hit Isaiah Jones for a 71-yard touchdown with just 26 seconds left in the first half.

That apparently was the spark USM needed. Dawson had UK’s defense off balance the entire second half. Counting the last two possessions of the first half, the visitors scored on six straight possessions, going field goal, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, field goal.

By game’s end, Southern Miss had gained 520 yards, including 261 in the second half. USM had two 100-yard rushers. Ito Smith gained 173 yards on 36 carries. George Payne added 100 yards on 16 carries. Mullens completed 18 of 28 passes for 257 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.

Dawson got a Gatorade bath at game’s end. Even Stoops said he was happy for his former coordinator.

3. Where do the Cats go from here?

The road ahead is far from easy. UK travels to Gainesville to play a team it hasn’t beaten since 1986 in a place where it hasn’t won since 1979. This may not be Steve Spurrier’s or Urban Meyer’s Gators, but Florida did win the SEC East last season.

On the other hand, Kentucky has played the Gators tough the last two years. The Cats’ last trip to the Sunshine State, back in 2014, Stoops’ team took Florida to overtime before losing a controversial 36-30 decision. Last season at Commonwealth Stadium, the Gators escaped with a 14-9 win.

Bottom line: In his fourth season as UK’s head coach, Stoops will take a 12-25 overall mark and 4-20 SEC record to Florida for the 3:30 p.m. CBS game. The only way to erase the memory of Saturday’s loss to Southern Miss would be to find a way to upset the Gators.

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