The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: Kentucky-Southern Miss Edition

In the season premiere of "The Good, The Bad & The Ugly," we break down all the highs and lows from Kentucky's 44-35 loss to Southern Miss on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.


Perhaps the biggest shame of blowing a 25-point lead -- outside of potentially sinking an entire season -- is that some truly fine performances will now be obscured by the epic collapse. Junior wide receiver Garrett "Juice" Johnson showed explosive playmaking ability with six catches for 143 yards. The same could be said of Jeff Badet (2 catches, 72 yards, TD) and Tavin Richardson (2 catches, 74 yards), the latter who stepped up nicely in his collegiate debut with Dorian Baker sidelined by a nagging hamstring. Kentucky clearly has some big-play guys in that unit and a quarterback who can get them the ball if he's given reasonable time to make his progressions and throw. At the very least, it gives Big Blue Nation a glimmer of hope that the Cats can compete in some of its other games on the schedule.

Realizing it's going to be a tough sell from the defensive side of the ball on a night when the opponent hung 44 points on the Cats, I think you still have to salute senior cornerback J.D. Harmon, who had eight tackles and two interceptions, including one of the best you'll ever see. (Below)  I think you also have to praise the effort of sophomore linebacker Jordan Jones, who was in on a career-high 19 tackles, two for losses and one sack. I'm not sure if he played as well as the stats indicate -- film will be the ultimate judge on that -- but I know he played extremely hard. Early in the game, Kentucky also showed some ability to pressure the quarterback that simply wasn't there last season. The Cats had three sacks in the opener after finishing 2015 with only 17 in 12 games.


Four Breakdowns Loom Large - There were basically a small handful plays in this game that turned a potential UK blowout into a shocking upset. (1) The Cats botched a 46-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter on a mishandled hold by Tristan Yeomans. That likely cost them three points with the strong-legged Austin MacGinnis not getting a chance to try the kick. (2) The UK secondary committed a cardinal sin when they allowed Southern Miss to get behind the coverage for a 71-yard touchdown pass with only 26 seconds left in the first half. That simply cannot happen.  (3) Blake McClain dropped what would have been his second interception of the game in the third quarter on a ball that hit him directly in the hands with no other player in the area. Of course, Southern Miss took advantage of the break and scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 11. And (4) Midway through the third quarter, Drew Barker fumbled at the USM 18 when it looked like the Cats were going to finally extinguish the Golden Eagles' tidal wave of momentum. A field goal would have put the Cats up 14, a touchdown 17, and nerves would have likely been calmed enough to close out the win. Those four plays, out of 145 snaps in the game, represented a swing of 20-24 points. 

Look: When you fire your offensive coordinator and he comes back to torch you for 520 yards of total offense, then celebrates with his new team on your home field, there's no way to sugarcoat it. That's a bad look. It would be hard to imagine what some of the emotions going through both Shannon Dawson and Mark Stoops were last night at the final horn. In fairness, both men said it just wasn't the right fit for either one of them, but that won't be the perception across the nation.

Fortune: A bit of an overlooked detail from the opener is that Southern Miss was not even supposed to be in Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday. That game was originally scheduled with UAB in 2014, which would later temporarily shut down its program due to budget concerns. That left UK scrambling to find a replacement, and it eventually found one in Southern Miss, which was coming off and 0-12 season in 2012 and a 1-11 mark in 2013. But the team that came to Lexington last night was coming off a 9-5 bowl season and featured the reigning C-USA Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Nick Mullens and a fantastic running back in Ito Smith. The Cats were never expecting this kind of test, nor the challenging return trip to Hattiesburg, Miss., next season.

Defensive Front Seven: It was the biggest question mark heading into the season, and now that has morphed into either a deep concern (optimist) or an irreparable situation (pessimist). One thing is for certain: every offensive coordinator remaining on UK's schedule now knows that he basically does not need to throw a forward pass to beat the Cats. When pass-happy "Air Raid" disciple Shannon Dawson uses 67 of his 95 snaps to run the football, the message is loud and clear that he thinks your defensive front is woeful. If USM did this kind of damage, what will Alabama and Georgia do? 


WTH (What The Half?) - The last two times that Kentucky fans have headed home from Commonwealth Stadium, they've done so with a look equal parts disgust and bewilderment. In last year's season finale against arch-rival Louisville, the Cats raced to a 21-0 lead, led 24-7 at the half, and watched as the Cardinals scored 31 unanswered points in cruising to a deceptively easy win. Against Southern Miss, they nearly duplicated that feat, leading 35-10 before yielding 34 unanswered points to a C-USA opponent. As a colleague summed it up well, the Cats were playing the role of Prince Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones, celebrating his victory against "The Mountain" prematurely instead of finishing the job. Poor performance coming out of the locker room at the half is becoming a trend for UK, which does not reflect well on the staff. In 2015, the Cats gave up more points in the third quarter (92) and had a larger scoring deficit (-26) than in any other period.  Ironically, the Cats have an SEC-best 27-game winning streak under Stoops when leading to begin the fourth quarter. It's the third they can't seem to solve.

How Does That Happen? - The Cats ran 14 offensive plays in the second half. When the opponent scores five times in said half, that's hard to wrap one's mind around. If your offense went three-and-out each possession, that would still be 15 plays. That's how bad UK's offense was in the second half, and a big reason why a suspect defense got even worse as the game progressed. No defense, regardless of talent, can survive being on the field for 53 plays in a half. USM ran more plays after halftime than the Cats did the entire night (50). But the most shocking part of the turnaround was the same offense racked up 35 points in the first half. I don't think I've ever witnessed a more perplexing swing in a UK game.

Future Attendance at CWS? - Kentucky travels to Florida next week before returning home to face unappealing non-conference foe New Mexico State on Sept. 17. Barring a great showing at "The Swamp," many are already predicting less than 30,000 could be in the stands for the next home game. Season ticket sales were already down 12 percent from 2015 to 2016, and now you begin a season with a crushing (and all too familiar) defeat. The biggest danger a coach faces when he gets on the proverbial "hot seat" is empty seats. Is Mark Stoops entering that danger zone? 

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