COLLEGE STATION, Texas – The school that took Bear Bryant from Kentucky football fans has stolen their joy again. Texas A&M has smudged what had been a rare, perfect UK won-loss record and while a 5-1 worksheet is still a thing of beauty at this time of the season, the way perfection disappeared was downright ugly.
It was a white-knuckle, grind-it-out sort of affair that made the experts who predicted a total of at least (or at most) 50 points look foolish; it also made them look brilliant, as they had made the Aggies a six-point favorite. Most of us thought 20-14 would be the halftime score; it took 65 minutes to play this one out.
So now, the Big Blue Nation and their team have the next weekend off, extra time to rest and heal. Players will look ahead. Fans, as is their wont, will stay firmly transfixed on Kyle Field and what unfolded here Saturday night.
Defense ruled; offense sputtered. The Aggies put up more yardage than the Wildcats but they scored their second-half touchdown on a tipped pass, the receiver bouncing off a Kentucky defensive back who had a clean shot but missed the tackle.
The fact that A&M benefitted on that drive from a short field festered in the UK locker room long after the clock struck zeros. A booming punt by Max Duffy had sent the A&M return man deep into Aggie territory; a UK cover man was closing in and then took a shot to the back that sent him flying into the end zone. The Wildcats awaited a flag and a call of “illegal block to the back.” None came. Thus liberated, the Aggie return man raced up field.
There was also bitter discussion of the tribulations faced by all-star linebacker Josh Allen, who wore blockers like a cheap suit all night. Fair enough. But for four quarters, he had more hands latched onto him than the belle of a Saturday night square dance and couldn’t get a holding call, no matter how much the Kentucky coaches lobbied.
Complaining, though, is for losers, although the Big Blue Nation is doing its share this week – in general, about the Kentucky offense. Specifically, about one play.
You know the one. Overtime, 3rd-and-two. After a timeout, Mark Stoops and company eschew handing off to Benny Snell, opting instead for a pass by Terry Wilson. The ensuing, disastrous sack pushed the Wildcats just beyond the range of kicker Miles Butler. Minutes later, A&M scored and the perfect record was a memory.
Stoops later, understandably, sounded as though he regretted signing off on the decision. The idea was to cross up the A&M defenders who, like all 99,829 screaming fans at Kyle Field and millions of UK faithful everywhere, believed the ball would go to the All-America tailback.
It had not been a great night for Benny. The A&M defense had made a mission of slowing him down. But it hadn’t been such a grand night, either, for Wilson, who struggled at times making proper decisions, both with his feet and his arm. Taking a sack was the worst thing a QB could do and yet, down he went.
Some believe it was a function of an offense that has some corners of UK fandom ready to hit the Panic and the Eject buttons at the same time. What appears to be an attack that has gone dormant has plagued the Cats for six quarters now, dating back to the second half of the South Carolina game.
What’s lost in the flurry of punts is the fact that what hampered Kentucky against the Gamecocks was the same malady it suffered in College Station – penalties. The Wildcats constantly knocked themselves off-schedule offensively with mistakes. And when you factor in the stout Aggie defense, you can understand why UK faced 3rd-and-long almost all night.
A quick breakdown:
1st Quarter – three possessions, only one third down shorter than 3rd-and-five and that led to a first down (two plays later – UK touchdown). The other two – punts.
2nd Quarter – three possessions; 3rd and-seven, eight and 12. Three punts.
3rd Quarter – two possessions; 3rd-and-three became 3rd-and-eight after a penalty. The other was 3rd-and-nine. Both punts.
4th Quarter – two possessions. Penalties created 3rd-and-17 and 3rd-and-16.
Overtime – one possession; 3rd-and-two, which led to the Great Debate.
A team that “loses” first down consistently will struggle on offense. Every defense Kentucky faces from here on will sell out to stop Snell, meaning the Kentucky coaching staff will have to find other ways to move the football. That likely would mean fewer carries for Snell. And more opportunities for armchair offensive coordinators to second-guess.
Before the season began I asked Eddie Gran about the fact that every time you call a pass play or sub in a different tailback, that’s one more play where Snell doesn’t handle the football. Yes, he said, but the Kentucky offense MUST be balanced.
UK fans could have used a little less balance on 3rd-and-two in overtime Saturday night. The guess here is, knowing what they know now, Kentucky’s coaches probably would say the same.