(Top photo: UK Athletics/Chet White)
They are words that resonate back to the Rich Brooks era of Kentucky football: “It was a complete systems breakdown.”
I don’t recall which game prompted the venerable coach’s assessment of whatever setback it followed but it no doubt was an ugly, senseless loss – much like the one Saturday at Kroger Field.
The Wildcats failed to execute consistently in all three phases, which is why the Big Blue Nation is roaring with disgust following the Commodores’ 24-21 last-second victory.
The defense, which had been Kentucky’s only consistent weapon, allowed Vandy 448 yards and a third-down conversion rate of 11-of-17. It also let the Commodores drive 80 yards in 12 plays for the game-winning touchdown with 32 seconds left.
Special teams, riddled with mistakes so often this season, improved but still allowed the ‘Dores to block a 37-yard field goal try by Matt Ruffalo in the first half. It would come back to haunt the Wildcats, who lost by those same three points.
And the reason they couldn’t put any distance between themselves and their visitors – and keep Vandy’s surprisingly effective offense on the sideline – was UK’s inability to mount any kind of consistent offensive attack of its own.
It was so frustrating, Mark Stoops had to field a post-game question about staff changes – a query, no doubt, directed at new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello.
Asked if he might follow the lead of other schools and make a change at coordinator mid-season, Stoops flatly said, “No.” He said the same thing during his post-game radio conversation with Tom Leach, reiterating that there would be no changes in-season.
Chris Rodriguez posted heroic numbers, 162 rushing yards including a 72-yard explosion that carried him to the end zone and gave UK the lead with 5:03 left, only to see it evaporate thanks to Vanderbilt’s winning drive.
Rodriguez carried 18 times, which compared to some of his other games might seem like a paltry sum. But because the Cats couldn’t move the chains (4-of-12 on third down, 1-of-2 on fourth), they ran only 54 plays on offense — four of them on the final, desperate drive that never took them anywhere near field goal range.
So the Big Blue Nation is howling, demanding a change when it comes to play-calling. And that may well be a problem. But it’s not the most glaring.
It says here, no matter who is calling plays for the Wildcats – next week or next season – it won’t matter a wit if the offensive line can’t block them.
The Big Blue Wall has broken down this season more times than any of us care to recall. It was largely ineffective much of Saturday, with Rodriguez having to plow his own path much of the time and Will Levis, again, fighting for his life in what should have been a cleaner pocket.
Levis also complicated matters by turning in one of his worst performances as well. He finished 11-of-23 with one TD and an interception on the game’s final play. Levis completed only two passes in the second half, which is why he was angry not just with his teammates, but himself.
“It’s one thing when you’re just not playing as well as the other team. It’s another thing when you’re beating yourself and guys aren’t doing the right thing and aren’t locked in. When that happens, it’s frustrating,” he said.
After one of Vandy’s four sacks, this one late in the third quarter with the Wildcats threatening at the Commodore 10, Levis could be seen animatedly talking to wideout Dekel Crowdus, Jr., as they walked off the field.
It might have been the reason Scangarello said this after the game: “We had a double post called and the receiver broke out and didn’t break in. The guy took a sack because the receiver ran the wrong route. He would’ve been wide open. Those things hurt you and that’s on me. I’m not coaching them good enough.”
Levis also shouldered some of the blame.
“I got a little more vocal with the guys today when those things happen because that is unacceptable,” Levis said. “We haven’t seen it at the rate we did today yet this year and the combination of that and being disappointed in myself and knowing that I can be doing better. I try to keep my calm out there but sometimes you need that extra motivation for your guys, which I tried to step up and do today but it didn’t end up working out.”
Too many mistakes by the Wildcats on both sides of the ball and for an offense that has been struggling for consistency all year long, they were fatal.
“Those things happen.” Scangarello said, “but when they happen in critical moments, it can change the game.”
As always, social media critics recoil from any explanation that might include the notion that a coach might describe a mistake made by a player. And while Scangarello and Stoops both answered questions about on-field breakdowns, each accepted their share of the blame.
“It ultimately falls on us as coaches, getting the players ready to play,” said Scangarello.
As for the man who hired him, Stoops is feeling the heat.
“We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror and address the situation and address the things that are going on and respond one way or the other,” he said.
“There is only one way out. There is no way to point fingers or anything like that. We know there are issues, things to be addressed. That will happen at the appropriate time. And then
there is work. That’s it. You just got to go back and work and try to get better in every area.”
UK fans are frustrated but not nearly as much as the head coach.
“For whatever reason, I’m not getting it done with this team, getting them in a position to be successful,” Stoops said. “I’m not communicating well enough to push on the things that we need to get better at.
“You know, that’s frustrating and also disappointing, and something that I’ve got to figure out.”
And it has to happen with the Wildcats next facing a Georgia team that’s coming at them like a freight train wearing silver britches.