Roanoke's around the SEC: Kentucky Week

The vast majority of players on Vandy’s 2014 football squad have no idea what it’s like not to go to a bowl game. Kentucky, by contrast, has not won an SEC game since their 2011 finale – a 10-7 win over Derek Dooley’s Volunteers. That is 17 straight conference losses.

In Lexington, sportswriters have begun a “futility count” of the days since that last SEC win – the tabulation exceeded 1,030 days this week. That is a long time. In their previous game, two weeks ago, the Wildcats suffered their 28th consecutive loss to Florida – a streak dating back to 1987. For whatever it’s worth, the Wildcats also have lost three straight games to Vandy – by a cumulative score of 100-14. Each loss involved a little salt in the wound. In 2011, Zac Stacy made the Sportscenter highlight reel carrying six UK defenders into the end zone en route to a 38-8 trouncing. In 2012 – Vandy’s last trip to Lexington – despite our best efforts not to run up the score – the Commodores buried the hapless Wildcats 40-0. Last year an improved Kentucky team took offense at a late Patton Robinette jump-pass touchdown which helped secure a 22-6 win.

The bottom line is this: Mark Stoops’ UK team is desperate for an SEC win – and they have had this Saturday’s game circled on their calendar for a long time. In fact, the Wildcats scheduled a bye this week to help get ready for it. To make matters worse, UK plainly has improved a lot on both sides of the ball. They are favored to beat us by 17 points. That should not sit well in our locker room.

Kentucky has some very good talent – it starts with QB Patrick Towles. The Cats also have a stable of dangerous running backs including Braylon Heard and JoJo Kemp – and speedster WR Javess Blue who gave us trouble last year. (Heard and Blue show up on UK’s injury report but have had time to heal given the bye.) Kentucky also has a solid (though not enormous) defensive line anchored by Za’Darius Smith which could challenge our running attack.

Improvement noted – yet the sudden rash of UK hype needs to be evaluated a little more closely: the Cats crushed UT-Martin in their opener – a team that was likewise crushed by Eastern Kentucky last weekend. They beat Ohio 20-3 – but the next week Ohio got drilled by 30 at Marshall. The Cats did take Florida to triple overtime – and yet, in reality, this loss enabled Florida to snap its own 5 game SEC losing streak. This is not really as fearsome of a resume as a lot of talking heads would have the world believe.

These same talking heads have hurled a fairly steady stream of invective our way after the disastrous turnover-marred opener with Temple, which was followed up by the nationally televised massacre at the hands of Ole Miss. Written off early by the media, we now must endure snide “Bottom 10” rankings and Finebaum quips about being the worst team in SEC history. To be sure, our staff has experienced a steep learning curve since opening day – but most of our players are used to winning nine games per season. Listening to Brent Musberger repeatedly suggest last Saturday night that the “the cupboard was bare” for this season became quite grating. There is a lot of talent on this team. The trick is figuring out how to harness it.

Again, the story begins with QB Patton Robinette – who had us up 14-0 over South Carolina before succumbing to a concussion. With Robinette under center, we are outscoring the competition 55-24 this year. With all other QBs we are down a sobering 133-23. This disparity is due not only to Robinette’s obvious poise, talent, and 71% completion rate – but to the play-calling utilized when he is at the helm. Our O-line excels at run-blocking and Robinette’s dual threat capability and moving pocket has kept opposing defenses off guard.

Our offensive brain-trust seems reluctant to stick with the dual-threat strategy. Last week when we truly embraced this tactic, we certainly moved the ball versus South Carolina. Coach Dorrell has, in fact, impressed me in his play-calling for Robinette – when he really commits to the dual threat package. Too often, however, when there is any excuse to scrap it, it disappears fast.

Sometimes simply appearing to embrace things is important – to fans and players. As I have learned from grim experience, it is not enough to merely attend The Ya-Ya Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants – you also have to act like you want to be there. If you are rolling your eyes at the price of popcorn and pointing out glaring plot flaws – you are not being a positive cinematic influence. Perhaps, I digress – but the point is, this staff seems to want to run the pocket passing offense we saw versus Ole Miss while occasionally humoring us with the dual threat package. For the moment, though, we execute the dual threat best. Hopefully, Robinette will be able to suit up Saturday and the play-calls will work out accordingly – but if he cannot, perhaps our other dual threat QB, Johnny McCrary, should see some action?

Wade Freebeck continues to impress with his skill set – but the pure passing game will continue to have clear drawbacks until our personnel better fit the scheme. The spirit-crushing South Carolina pick-6 before the half could be the topic of an entire article: the mismanagement of clock, the burning of time-outs after letting 20 seconds of clock run off, and the whole stadium knowing a clock-stopping sideline toss was coming. A simple spike, a timely decision, a less risky throw – all presented logical alternatives. Yet as disorganized as we looked on that fatal sequence, we closed out the first half against UMass with a masterpiece drive with the experienced Robinette in dual threat mode. Sometimes bad execution can make a fairly smart coach look foolish.

Plainly, the offense made real strides against South Carolina; the running game continues to shine – and Freebeck can throw. Our receivers got open – although it bears repeating that the Gamecocks’ secondary is highly suspect. On special teams, Darrius Sims two TD kick-off returns were spectacular – but our utter ineptitude at handling the squib kicks that followed was maddening. For much of the night our defense – minus two starters – was excellent. Torren McGaster was particularly impressive, as was Ryan White. Paris Head played well in relief. We jettisoned the big cushions, and ran a number of effective blitzes. We continue to lose time of possession – and our defense wore down late. South Carolina’s late 70-yard wildcat scamper was a warning shot across the bow. UK has several speedsters with break-away capability – and that late defensive breakdown needs to be studied and fixed. If we have any hope of success, we cannot give up the big play to Kentucky.

This will be our first road game of the season – and of the Mason era. In some ways, after the snake-bit start to the season, going on the road might take some pressure off this team. The once-promising campaign certainly has not gotten off to the start we wanted – yet, aside from Temple, the outcomes (even if sometimes ugly) have followed the odds. This week would be a good time to start fresh and play up to our potential for four quarters. We saw glimmers of hope last week: in Lexington there will be no comfort in anything less than a win.

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Around the Conference this week the biggest game is Missouri at South Carolina. Mizzou let Indiana run all over them at home last Saturday, which raises all sorts of questions. South Carolina’s secondary remains challenged – which presents major problems against Maty Mauk. The over/under is 63 in this one – and I cast a hearty over vote. The Gamecocks should prevail at home, but it will not be a defensive showcase. Ditto for Arkansas’ trip to Texas A&M, where the over/under is a whopping 70. While Arkansas is much improved, A&M may be the surprise team of all college football. Again, expect the scoreboard to light up and the home team to win.

Tennessee is coming off a bye to face Georgia in Athens. Georgia let off some steam against Troy last week – but the Bulldogs probably will not take the Vols lightly after their hard-fought and injury-riddled game last year. Tennessee is improving – and showed it by holding their own at Oklahoma. Georgia is favored by 17 – the same margin by which UK is favored to beat us. Interesting.

The cupcake games this week should see Ole Miss trip Memphis, Auburn blast Louisiana Tech, and LSU obliterate New Mexico State. Bama, MSU and Florida nurse byes. The slate Saturday will shape the East race mightily – top to bottom. With a trip to Georgia looming next week, winning in Lexington seems imperative if we want to right the ship and make this season mean something.

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Also see: Vanderbilt still in play for Toney

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