In this edition of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, we recap the highs and lows of Kentucky's 32-14 loss to Louisville on Sunday in the season opener at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
Signs of Offensive Improvement: The main reason last year's 5-7 record felt more like 2-10 was UK's anemic offense that finished ranked almost rock-bottom among NCAA Division I teams for scoring and total offense. The only thing worse than losing is losing and failing to be entertaining, which is what the Cats accomplished during a turbulent 2011. After promising this summer that the offense would be improved, UK backed that up in the opener. The Cats debuted a new, up-tempo, no-huddle look and finished with 373 yards of total offense and 24 first downs. Maxwell Smith completed 70 percent of his passes (35 of 50), used his entire arsenal (11 different Cats had receptions) and threw a pair of TD passes with no interceptions. The Cats converted a healthy seven of 13 third-down conversions. Kentucky only had 19 rushing attempts, thanks in large part to falling behind by two scores early, but it actually rushed for more yards per carry (4.9) than Louisville (4.8). So, even though the Cats didn't emerge with a much-needed W in the opener, they demonstrated that they could be competitive in some games if the defense gets its act together.
Foster's Legwork: Freshman punter Landon Foster was billed as "a different breed" by UK coach Joker Phillips this summer, and he showed why with a couple of his boots in this game. The Tennessee native made his first collegiate punt a dandy – albeit "rugby style" – as the Cards were forced to start their opening drive at the 1-yard line. He added a 53-yarder with beautiful hangtime in the second quarter that was fair caught. He finished with a 44-yard average and both of his punts inside the opponent's 20.
Isaac Takes a Three-Hour Break: The remnants of Hurricane Isaac made their way through the Ohio Valley this weekend, but, shockingly, we did not get any noticeable precipitation at all during the game. Fans got absolutely soaked during tailgating and a little bit more on their way home, but after all that talk about how inclement weather might affect one team or the other, it had no impact whatsoever.
Don't Believe The Hype: You can't blame the Big Blue Nation if it becomes highly skeptical about anything we media types report from UK's closed practices from this point forward. Last year, they were told that the offensive line was the strength of UK's team. The O-Line struggled almost all season long. This year, they were told that, undoubtedly, the defensive line was the strength of his team. If the first game is any indication, that's nowhere close to reality. Simply put, the Cats' D-Line got manhandled in this game. Physically whipped. All. Day. Long. Someone on the UK postgame show suggested the UK defense struggled because it didn't have replacements for Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy. That's not true. Trevathan could have played in that game Sunday, racked up 20 tackles, and the Cats still would have gotten hammered. If the D-Line is getting blown 4 or 5 yards off the ball on every snap, it doesn't matter how good your linebackers are. They're not going to make plays that matter. Same for your DBs, who had to cover for an eternity as Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater surveyed the field for an eternity from the pocket. I believe that the D-Line IS better than what we saw Sunday, but they've got to come out and prove it beginning next week. If they don't, things could get real ugly in the BBN.
That being said… The linebacker play was not good. Middle linebacker Avery Williamson was credited with 12 tackles, but to be honest, I can't recall a single one. That either means I wasn't paying close enough attention or none of those stops really mattered. My hunch is that it was the latter, although Williamson was credited with a forced fumble that could have been a key play had the Cats recovered. Meanwhile, the outside linebackers didn't get much accomplished, either. Miles Simpson, Tyler Brause and Malcolm McDuffen had eight tackles between them and frequently struggled in coverage. Rick Minter and Chuck Smith have their work cut out for them this week in practice.
Demarco Where Art Thou? Another guy we heard nothing but rave reviews about this summer was sophomore wideout Demarco Robinson. On Sunday he finished with three catches for only 16 yards. Where was this dynamic playmaker? He finished with the same number of catches and 20 yards less than career backup Aaron Boyd. Not exactly what UK fans had envisioned from those soundbites they heard this summer.
Ball Security: The Cats fumbled twice, losing both in the "red zone" to thwart scoring opportunities, but they could have had four or five on the day. A couple more popped loose along the sidelines and went out of bounds without incident, but will surely have the staff's attention when they review film. UK should have been able to put 24-27 points up in this one.
Recruiting Impact: Louisville is being hailed as an up-and-coming national program, while Kentucky is being described as a program headed in the opposite direction. A couple of receivers that UK strongly covets in 2013 -- Trinity's James Quick and Georgia standout Johnathan Howard -- were reportedly both on hand for the blowout. Also, Conner quarterback Drew Barker and Madison Southern running back Damien Harris, the players who could emerge as the Bluegrass State's top prospects in 2014 and 2015, respectively, were unofficial visitors with the Cards on Sunday. Both tweeted that they were impressed by UofL.
By The Numbers:
3-0 – The first number is the fumbles UK forced Sunday. The second is the number of times the Cards lost possession of the ball.
1:55 – The time remaining in the second quarter when Kentucky got its first contact in the pocket on Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. By then, he was already 12-of-14 passing on his way to a 19-of-21 day. Pass-happy offensive coordinators on UK's schedule will be licking their chops when they see this film.
277 – The total yards Louisville had gained after its first three possessions of the game in taking a 22-7 lead. To put that number in perspective, UK did not gain 277 yards of total offense in six of its 12 games last season. The Cards averaged 8.9 yards per play on their first 31 snaps.
Head-Scratchers: The Cats failed on a fake punt on 4th-and-14 from their own 25 in the third quarter that helped Louisville tack on a short TD drive to push its lead to 32-7. There was also a very short pass on 4th-and-9 in the fourth quarter at the Cards' 18 yard line that yielded only 6 yards and wasted another scoring opportunity. Even though the UK offense looked to be improved, I think a lot of fans have grown a little tired of the frequency at which the Cats throw horizontal passes versus vertical ones.
The Hot Seat: The burner just got cranked up another 100 degrees for Joker Phillips. Let's face it: the 2012 schedule doesn't feature many dates that give the Cats a strong chance of emerging victorious. Sunday was thought to be one of them, and they were crushed. I don't think Joker necessary had to win this one to save his job, but the fact that the game wasn't competitive will only fan the flames for those seeking his ouster. It certainly won't help attendance next weekend for the home opener against Kent State, and as we all know, empty seats at Commonwealth Stadium is the biggest threat to his future at UK.
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