Austin Peay WeekLast Thursday night as I walked out of the stadium, I felt a lot like I had on opening night the year before. We had lost a close "must win" game then, too – and yet the season turned out on to be a pretty good one. I think this one will, too.
The central pre-season question was answered – Austyn Carta-Samuels looked sharp and poised in throwing for 300 yards against an SEC opponent. This level of performance was not something to be taken for granted – and it bodes well for the rest of the year. Along with Carta-Samuels' impressive outing, Jerron Seymour's stock went up at RB, Steven Scheu's went up at TE, Jonathan Krause stepped up at WR, and Jordan Cunningham earned the start at WR (although he did not get many throws in his direction.) The offense, perhaps most importantly, showed character.
The stadium mood had gone a bit flat early as the bounces seemed to be going the wrong way. An "INT" was ripped from our receiver's hands, a shanked punt left Ole Miss a short field, and Ole Miss was capitalizing. After we had dug a 10-0- hole, our offense responded by exploding for a 21-10 half-time lead. Then, in the second half, Jordan Matthews looked seriously hurt and hobbled directly to the locker room for attention. Boyd was already missing. The promising season suddenly looked like a mirage and the air audibly was sucked out of the stadium. It did not help that Ole Miss immediately scored to pull closer. The offense responded by pulling itself together and going on an impressive drive without Matthews – this was a decisive score and Carta-Samuels looked very much in charge. Matthews came back appearing hobbled – and was hurt again later – but he dominated. He showed first round draft pick character and skills all night. After OM re-took the lead, with two minutes left, we looked doomed, but the offense rose again. The ensuing fourth down Carta-Samuels-to-Matthews bomb and TD throw to Scheu were things of beauty. As it turned out, the irony was: we scored too quickly.
It would be easy to pile on the D, which had a less-than-impressive outing. But before we toss them under the team bus, it should be remembered that we played a solid first half, filled with sacks, pressure and some shut-down coverage by Andre Hal. Our D won the conventional battle, but lost the adjustment war. Our pressure convinced OM to shift game plans. Gone were deep drops, gone were slow developing, downfield plays. OM totally neutralized our pressure in the second half with the read option and quick WR screens. We failed to take them away, and got tired as OM ran 80+ plays. We lost not by being outmanned or untalented (which is unfixable), but by being a bit too risk-averse. It did not help that OM ran the hurry-up very well. Credit them for that.
We can blame ourselves for failing in the turnover department – dropping several easy INTs. We also gave up the crushing 75-yard Scott run (our first TD allowed beyond the red zone since last year's game six.) So there is much to work on, but there is plenty of talent. If there is a bright side – and maybe there isn't – perhaps Bo Wallace's gain will be Connor Shaw's remorse. We failed to hit Wallace on the read option all night. I doubt that will happen in Columbia. The QB should be dropped whenever that play is run.
This week our attention turns to Austin Peay – and our D will have a less complex assignment. I actually watched Peay live at Virginia Tech last year – they had some surprisingly solid and immovable linemen. Their offense, however, was unusually punchless and predictable. This did not change opening week in Knoxville, where they were shut out again. Peay's players are toughing out this ambitious scheduling which saw them down 42-0 at half last week, but we are not in a position to feel sorry for them. Hopefully, this week our emphasis will be on perfecting our execution. Our starters may get some rest heading into the big SC game, and we will get to see what some of the highly-touted reserves can do.
Around the league last week, several statements were made – not all positive. UK lost to Western Kentucky for the second year in a row. We will see the true gravity of that loss when the Hilltoppers face UT, and we can gauge how good WKU really is. For practical purposes, this was a disastrous opener for UK and any talk of bowls ended last weekend– next up is a beatable Miami O, but the damage is done. Honestly, Bama's offense was pretty sloppy, too, in a 35-10 victory over Virginia Tech. In Tuscaloosa, there was not a lot of praise for their O-line play. It is hard to complain about a 25 point victory – but the Tide did not look like National Champions in Atlanta. They get a bye this week in preparation for the A&M match-up. They have some work to do.
While Georgia's National Championship hopes took a beating versus Clemson, they got a good defensive primer for their SEC opener at home with SC. This is the game of the week, and maybe the year in the East. Georgia lost star receiver Malcolm Mitchell for the year in a TD celebration. I still like them to beat the Gamecocks at home. Win or lose, it should be a physically and emotionally draining game for our Week 3 opponents. SC put in a workman-like 27-10 drubbing of UNC.
LSU's depleted D looked decent, and their offense looked much improved in beating a solid TCU team. They made the most positive opening statement in the conference. Texas A&M's suspension-ravaged D looked porous in a win – but the suspensions will end before SEC play begins. Florida handled a deceptively good Toledo team. There was no disgrace in Mississippi State's loss to Oklahoma State – but no one expected OSU to hold the Bulldogs to three points and the offense in Starkville is very much in doubt.
This week the SEC feasts on a number of cupcakes: OM (SEMo), Texas A&M (Sam Houston), Auburn (Arkansas State), Arkansas (Samford), MSU (Alcorn St.) and LSU (UAB). A few big (or at least contested) games loom, too: Florida may have its hands full with in-state rival Miami. Missouri won convincingly in Week 1 after a sluggish start. Toledo could test them this week – and if they don't, Mizzou will likely arrive in Nashville undefeated in Week 5. Finally, UT looked much improved in Week 1. Coming off a laugher, the Vols take on WKU this week with Oregon and Florida waiting in the wings. This has the makings of a trap game – but WKU's win over UK will make the 'Toppers hard to ignore.
Many folks are critical of cupcake games – but they are a useful tool on several levels. UT is a good example – by opening with a big win, they gain needed confidence and credibility. As it happens, our D needs some confidence right now – the swag was definitely missing Thursday night as the hurry-up put them on their heels. Hopefully, a good outing Saturday will have them back-to-swag for Columbia. Cupcake games are also useful for morale purposes among the younger guys. Everybody who practices hard deserves an opportunity to get into games. Tune-up games give the youngsters and back-ups a chance to show what they can do. We will also learn more about redshirts this week – who's burning them and who isn't. Finally, we should get a feel for the back-up QB situation. We are favored by 46½ points – that makes us only the third largest favorite in the SEC this week, believe it or not.