Kentucky seemed to come out with a little bit of a boost today. After all, it is bowl season. It's new life for a team that had more than its share of ups and downs. Kentucky came into Birmingham and had a good time this week. They were able to have some spirited practices, see the sights and contribute to the community while in the Capitol of the SEC.
Unfortunately Kentucky didn't capitalize on the difficulties that most people perceived that a struggling Pittsburgh program was dealing with. The Panthers entered the game having lost their head coach, Dave Wannstedt, after he was forced to resign. They hired Mike Haywood after he lead Miami University to an improbable MAC championship this year, but Haywood was released after an incident which led to him being arrested for attacking a woman.
To top that off, Wannstedt decided that he would not be coaching Pitt in his finale. He told the University of his decision only days ago. Pittsburgh seemed to be reeling.
In the end, none of that mattered. Pittsburgh was clearly the more talented team and surprisingly, they seemed to be more organized and better coached, despite the turmoil surrounding their program.
In the first half, the Wildcats failed to consistently get the ball into the hands of their two best offensive players, Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb. In the second half, Kentucky managed to get the ball to them, but in reality it was too little too late. Kentucky didn't show much of a pulse for the majority of the third quarter and once they did finally put a touchdown on the board, Pitt snatched up the momentum by controlling the clock and scoring a touchdown of their own.
Kentucky's problems were in all phases of the game today. Offensively there were several questionable play calls. The Wildcats consistently threw the ball behind the first down line and depended on the legs of the ball carrier to get them across the line. This shouldn't come as a surprise, as the Wildcats have had this problem all season.
Defensively, Kentucky was more aggressive than in recent years, but the discipline in the blitzes was still not there. Even when Kentucky stacked the box with eight men, Pitt was able to rip off a five yard run whenever they wanted to. The Panthers were just too strong across the offensive line for Kentucky's front seven and Kentucky had no answer.
Finally on special teams, Kentucky has been bad all season. There have been times were they looked average. But today, they were as bad as they have been all season. Kentucky's attempt at a fake punt was laughable and doomed to fail from the beginning. Ryan Tydlacka's punt that was blocked just seemed to be badly blocked upon first glance. Craig McIntosh's final field goal attempt was completely opposite from his first as it went so far wide left that you would assume the goal posts were 15 yards to the left.
Kentucky fans and supporters wouldn't be as angry with the outcome of the last two games and the season as a whole if the team wasn't as talented as they are. But this is a schizophrenic group. There is more talent that should be better utilized than it has been this season.
Joker has made some changes to the staff and more changes could be forth coming. Rick Minter hopes to make Kentucky more disciplined and more aggressive defensively. Joker hopes that Morgan Newton will show improvement in his game (which was evident in spurts in the bowl).
The biggest change that has been made at Kentucky over the past five seasons is a change in culture. Rich Brooks helped this program lift its expectations and wins over Georgia, LSU and Auburn in that time all helped the support in the program rise to an all-time high.
It's time to take the next step for this program, but this season, the step appears to have been a backwards one.
Mitch Barnhart, as athletics director, needs to find a way to push this program up to SEC standards. There are many much needed facility upgrades. The athletics program needs to find way to boost their marketing and getting the interest of even casual fans in Lexington and throughout the state. While there have been many improvements during Barnhart's tenure, the Kentucky football program still lags behind most other SEC programs in many ways.
Joker Phillips has an opportunity to put his stamp on the Kentucky football program and the SEC in a positive manner. But he has to make the right decisions on the field. He has to instill the discipline in this team and make sure that the players know what their expectations are. It's his responsibility to have his teams ready to play and compete at the best of their ability from the opening whistle in every game. To this point, Joker has not proven that he can do that.
I don't question Joker Phillips's commitment to the Wildcat football program. I believe if he's given the resources necessary, he can be a success at Kentucky. Joker also needs to improve and learn from his mistakes. But until that time comes around, this program has reached a plateau.
Today's loss to Pittsburgh was just like the entire season, in 60 minutes; highs and lows, ups and downs. It's time to take this program off the roller coaster.
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