“The reason it took Auburn 19 plays is because UK gave them 19 plays. No aggression. No risk and no reward. Safe and vanilla.”
operation WIN By Tread
“We thought we had the momentum, but then we gave it to them.” UK Football Coach Joker Philips said it best after the disaster in Oxford, Mississippi that was the Ole Miss and Kentucky match-up. But I don’t write that off as just another mouthful of typical Saturday afternoon coach-speak. This line sort of sums up the woes of the Big Blue football teams in recent history. We are the perpetual optimists at the start of every year, “will we go 9-3, 8-4, aw heck, 7-5?” “What will be the biggest win?” “Will it be Florida, Tennessee, how about Auburn or South Carolina? We’ll get Ole Miss, maybe Georgia and Mississippi State is a shoo-in…” And it seems about this time each year we are looking at 3-2 with a cluster of vastly improving teams on the near horizon.
Now, for the past week, I have heard the faithful lamenting the horrible defense of the Cats, and I understand the frustration of those who look around the SEC and see these 300 pounders with 4.8 speed and gap-filling prowess who can stuff out everything but the craftiest offensive schemes. Us, well, we seem pretty easy to plan for…attack, early and often, right up the middle. The age old argument that we hear is “it’s that we just don’t have the hosses.” The players that is. We aren’t up to par with the better defenses in the league. I’ll buy a bit of that but, look at Danny Trevathan’s 15 tackles, 10 of them solo tackles and 2 for a loss at Ole Miss. Now those stats look like pretty good numbers for any SEC linebacker. Honestly, we have some very good players on defense when you look around, so it begs the question, what are they doing wrong?
An old friend of mine (and longtime season ticket holder) has been on me since the Western Kentucky game about UK Defensive Coordinator Mike Brown. He knows that I’m not much of a “bring me the head of the lousy coach” kinda guy but his point is well taken when he asks, “why the Hell doesn’t he try to do something more than just play a crappy base defense if he supposedly doesn’t have the quality players?” I am more of the school that players have responsibility in all this to make plays, to tackle, to defend, to work. But coaches and coordinators need to make sure players are where they need to be to make plays. I sure don’t buy that we are where we need to be. Now, would we make tackles if we were? Both Phillips and Brown have publicly nailed the defense for a lack of tackling skill. But whose job is it to see that they develop those skills? They are playing for a Division I school in the toughest conference in the United States, if they can’t tackle why did you bring them here?
When the “adults” in the room start the yakking about “the fundementals” that their teams are getting, well I generally start the eye rolling and squirming, I mean really. This is a big boy game built on a couple of real basic principles…defense hits and tackle and tries to tack away the ball. Offense, runs, passes and tries to hold on to the ball…which brings me to what really removed the wheels from UK’s trip to the deep South of Mississippi. Turnovers. No, not the delicious, cinnamonny apple variety…but the “bah, Hartline just threw an interception,” etc. variety…never delicious.
The UK offense did what no winning team can actually get away with. They gave the opposition three touchdowns. Yes, gave them, in 3 nice, gift bags, with stylish tissue paper, ribbon and customized “To: Mr. Nutt” name tags. You see, that momentum thing that Joker mentioned. I guess we had a bit. We scored a touchdown on the opening possession of the game. That’s been the mantra of this offensive unit in this young season, “we can score.” Yes, we can. And we can help the other team score too, that is what kind of offense we are. When you set up a team inside the UK 15-yard line, not once but twice and a third time give them field position on your side of the field, well, here’s 21 points we just aren’t gonna get back. It took only four plays. Four. Momentum—we got crushed by our own. Mike Hartline threw an interception. Now I have not been a Hartline hater, nor a Hartline bandwagoneer either. Serviceable. That is Hartline. I’m cool with that. But this was a costly turnover, setting up Ole Miss for a two play touchdown drive. “Okay, we’re tied,” most Bluenecks said with a sigh…” we’ll be alright, first play of the next offensive possession a Chris Matthews’ fumble. Five plays, 43 yards and in less than two minutes. 21-14. And then it got ugly.
But really this isn’t all about analyzing one loss to another conference team on the road, it’s a little about the reality of what being a UK Football fan is and has been for a while now. Yes, I know. We’ve improved over the past half a decade. Four back-to-back bowl games. A couple really big upsets. But that being said, we just repeatedly end up the whipping boy in our own conference. Against Ole Miss we managed to win the stat battle while getting our rears blistered because of mistakes and miscues. You just can’t give up the ball and you just can’t give up over 40 points. I have tried to really temper my expectations for our football program. I’d surmise you probably have too. I guess the question is “is that okay?” Should we just be happy in the SEC cellar and shoot for that goal of just enough wins to play a game in the post-season in some tater chip bowl somewhere?
I don’t have the answer to that question. My knee-jerk response is “no, we shouldn’t.” We’ve kinda, unwittingly become the Chicago Cubs of SEC football. Commonwealth Stadium still has plenty of gluteous maximi(sic) in the seats and there is no shortage of party enthusiasm that comes with being a Cat fan. But how do we get better? What is it that this program just doesn’t have? What will make us truly competitive week in and out? Are we just spoiled because we are used to having relevance with our basketball team? What is it?
But here’s a conclusion I’m slowing coming to—I cannot keep up the pre-season “this year’s gonna be different” hyperbole that I always buy into. It’s a little like the guy who mumbles to his drunken wingman, “I think that stripper dressed like the naughty schoolgirl is really into me.” Both that guy and I fail to see the lie we are living. Or we see it—we just choose to not deal with it emotionally. Do we always have to fall back on the tired and weathered sports cliché’ of “it’s a rebuilding year.” “Seriously, dude, she was winking at me, seriously.” I’m just not going to do it. I am going to bask in the strange satisfaction of knowing we just aren’t that good. Don’t try and persuade me otherwise. Let me be pleasantly surprised when we win a game, any game. I’m lowering my damned bar. It’s healthy. And I’d suggest you come to grips that Diamondique is neither interested in anything other than the singles in your jeans’ pocket nor is she Catholic. But we can both be okay with this knowledge and the reality truck that has just t-boned our Oldsmobubble we’ve been traveling in.
One of my favorite Letterman things ever was when Leno first overtook him in the ratings and NBC bought one of those tacky-assed banners that hung over a skyscraper in New York that said. “Number One in Late Night” or some other silly marketing speak…Letterman bought a nearly identical one on the building nearly next door that basically said and my memory is failing so I am paraphrasing. “We’re number two!” Which I thought was the perfect way to deflate the sting of not “winning” the battle of ratings. And an important lesson for us Kentucky football fans, we just aren’t #1 regardless of what that giant foam finger keeps repeating.
The obsession with calling into post-game sports talk shows to pontificate using your vast knowledge of coaching and play calling, that can now be bottled and directed to more sensible after-game activities like sobering up for church. We can do a lot with our newfound spare time if we just accept the conclusion that we just might not win this one…or that one or the next one. Let’s just get Joker’s words printed on a shirt, it says it all. “We thought we had the momentum, but then we gave it to them. TM”
I’m gonna try and get okay with this. I really am. And Diamondique, you should put your clothes on; you are going to be late for morning mass.
inDEFENSible by Kevin W. Faris
Before discussing the latest development in Operation: Win, a 37-34 loss by the University of Kentucky to the Auburn Tigers Saturday night, let’s be clear what we will not be discussing: UK quarterback Mike Hartline. As a promising 3-0 start has turned into a 3-3 record, a lot of fans still want to argue about Hartline. Believe me, I was one of them, but the truth is that Hartline is not the problem. I’m not a big Hartline supporter, but I view him in the same way I view Congressman Ben Chandler. I don’t really like him, he hasn’t done a lot to cheer about, but at this point he’s the best option. The problem for UK lies on the defensive side of the ball and until Hartline starts at safety, UK fans should focus their ire elsewhere.
For instance, you could focus it on UK Defensive Coordinator Steve Brown. That is what I plan on doing. The UK defense started the season poorly and has only gotten worse, especially against the run. Against UL, they gave up 190 yards rushing. Against WKU, 206. The 67 yards they held Akron too only look good if you forget all the wide open passes the Zips dropped. And now that we have started SEC play, the Cats D is giving up an average of 233 yards on the ground and 42 points per game. They are also a perfect 22-22 in allowing teams to score when they get in the red zone. I could go on and on detailing the pathetic numbers the UK D has been putting up, but I think you get the idea.
These numbers are why, as the Tigers took the field with over seven minutes on the clock in a tie ballgame and starting at their own seven yard line, I was filled with little confidence. True, the UK defense had until that point held the Tigers to only a field goal after giving up 31 points in the first half, but this is the same defensive coordinator who has not been able to stop a mobile quarterback during his entire stint at UK. It was brutal to watch the Tigers slowly and methodically march down the field. There were 19 plays with no gain longer than 11 yards. At a time when the UK defense needed something, anything, to happen, they could not get it done. They needed a stop. They needed a turnover, and while they came close on Terrell Zachery’s fumble, they fell short. After the game, Brown commented on the turnover, “We needed a break like that.” The statement is true, but if you needed a break like that, then why not aggressively try to create it?
Brown’s tenure as a defensive coordinator has not been terrible, but it also has not been great. At best, his defenses were above average and at worst they have been…well the worst. At least in the SEC.
When Joker Phillips took over for Rich Brooks, I was curious how he was going to be as a head coach. These opportunities do not come around too often, especially in the SEC, and unlike a lot of African-American coaches who take over putrid programs, Phillips was walking into a position of taking over a team that has been to four straight bowl games. The temptation to simply maintain the status quo had to be weighed against the opportunity to run the team his way. The ouster of three coaches showed that Phillips was going to do this his way, but Brown was not one of those coaches let go, to the surprise of more than a few fans. I still don’t know if Joker is going to be a good, bad, or even great head coach, but I feel like he knows that this is his shot. Being a UK alum will only buy you a year or two longer than a non-alum and if Operation: Win is going to be successful, then they need to, you know, win. And to do that, it may be time for Steve Brown to go.
Fans like to focus on the offense, because it is a lot easier to understand. Run, pass, score touchdowns. It’s easy to measure success and understand why or why not a coach calls certain plays. Defense is a little different, in that so much of it is a direct response to the offense. Brown’s biggest issue, and be warned, this is coming from someone not exactly schooled in the Xs and Os, is that the defense is bland and safe. Imagine if the offense only had four offensive plays. Imagine how frustrated you would get watching them run the same four offensive plays over and over. That’s how I feel when I watch the defense. They play cautious, trying to avoid giving up the big play, but content to give up small gain after small gain in hopes of an offensive error. The reason it took Auburn 19 plays is because UK gave them 19 plays. No aggression. No risk and no reward. Safe and vanilla.
What UK needs in a defensive coordinator is what they once sought in an offensive coordinator. Creativity. Hal Mumme was hired at UK because the administration felt that in order to compete with teams more talented, UK needed to be creative. It did not work for a variety of reasons (wrong choice in coach, a ton of cheating) but the idea was the right one. UK’s recruiting is improving, but still in the bottom 1/3 of the SEC. UK relies on diamonds in the rough, like linebacker Danny Trevathan, and coaching 2/3 stars to play like 4/5 stars. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. UK needs to tilt the field to their advantage. They have the offense to overcome giving up a big play, but the offense needs to be on the field for this to happen and when the defense is allowing 19 play drives, it can’t happen.
Keep this all in mind this week as the call-in shows and the message boards debate the strength of Mike Hartline’s arm. If every other defender besides Trevathan did their job as well as Hartline does his, than UK would be 6-0.