In the midst of a 3 game losing streak, having just lost its starting QB to injury, and with a raucous introduction to John Calipari’s UK first team at Big Blue Madness, UK football was in danger of becoming an afterthought among its own fans. On an historic night in Auburn, Alabama, Rich Brooks and his Kentucky Wildcats reminded us why we love them so much.
Last weekend’s loss to South Carolina was a deflating one, one that only exceptionally tough, well-coached teams could overcome on the road against an SEC opponent playing 2 quarterbacks who had never before started at the collegiate level. It took a mammoth performance across the board to pull of the win.
Missed opportunities were what we all remembered about UK’s defeat at the hands of South Carolina. UK was not going to miss its opportunity to beat Auburn for the first time since 1966 tonight.
It started off very similarly to last week. The defense played phenomenally well and the offense outperformed its counterpart, but, again, the halftime score (Auburn up 14-7) did not reflect how well UK had played, thanks to a blocked Lones Seiber field goal that was returned for a touchdown. (By the way, the ESPNU play-by-play guy again proved why he’s on ESPNU, praising Lones Seiber as a quality kicker on multiple occasions)
The win was UK’s biggest on the road in recent memory, not that UK hasn’t been close. Those close calls have been marked by frustrating special teams mistakes, turnovers, and dumb/questionable penalties. UK sprinkled in the requisite special teams blunder, but committed ZERO turnovers and ZERO penalties…wow.
That lack of mistakes, along with UK’s best defensive effort of the season, allowed the ‘Cats to stick around even as the offense failed to create many opportunities.
In spite of a less than stellar performance in a 44-23 loss to Arkansas last week, one in which they still gained nearly 400 yards, Gus Malzahn’s offense was deserving of the praise it had received thus far. I don’t think it’s possible to shower enough praise on DC Steve Brown and his Whomp! Squad and they way they prepared for and executed against an offense that is not easy to deal with.
They played with discipline, they played with poise, and they tackled exceptionally well.
The defensive line was asked to minimize the holes against a very good running attack and create pressure on its own most of the night. UK did not come with many blitzes, and while the defensive line did not register a sack, they contributed to Chris Todd’s return to quarterbacking mediocrity.
The linebackers, Micah Johnson, Danny Trevathan, and Sam Maxwell, were ginormous all night. I think that this is the only UK linebacking corps that I can remember that could have won this game. The added athleticism of a guy like Danny Trevathan allowed UK deal with the way that Auburn uses the field horizontally. Auburn is a team that averaged 5.6 yards per rush entering this game, but UK held them to only 4.5 yards per rush in this game. Trevathan, Maxwell, and Johnson each had at least 8 solo stops and had a combined 34 tackles when you throw in assists.
The secondary was tremendous as well, and what a difference it made having Paul Warford back. Warford and Randall Burden, even with Trevard Lindley still missing, give UK two experienced, skilled corners that cannot be exploited. There would be no Alshon Jeffery-type performance tonight.
The secondary, at times, had to maintain coverage for quite a while as UK stuck with a 4 man rush, and it never buckled. Todd and Kodi Burns went a combined 11-25 for 95 yards and a pick. In addition to their responsibilities against the pass, the UK defensive backs were superb in helping out against the run as well. Warford was just amazing (6 tackles, 4 pass breakups) and Winston Guy is turning into a player that I just always expect to be around the ball.
On the offensive side of the ball, we spent most of the week obsessing over the quarterback position and who would take the snaps. It turns out that both Morgan Newton and Will Fidler led the offense and managed things effectively.
Newton’s numbers were less than spectacular (5-13 for 19 yards and 8 rushes for 22 yards and a score), but as I said, he did not try to do anything more than was asked of him. In the process, he showed that he is going to be quite a player before all is said and done. The kid passes the eye test and he has a gun.
Newton was oh so close to having a much numbers than he did. He missed long touchdown hookups to Chris Matthews twice by a matter of inches. Wind was a factor on both attempts, but nonetheless, Newton provided a deep dimension to the offense that has been missing for a while, and allowed the running game to do its thing.
Will Fidler replaced Newton with 3:36 left in the 3rd quarter, as the passing game stagnated a bit. Fidler wasted no time in leading the ‘Cats into Auburn territory before Lones Seiber failed to convert a 48 yard field goal attempt that was probably out of his range on a chilly night.
On the following drive, UK’s defense bent but didn’t break, with help from a boatload of Auburn penalties that had the War Eagle faithful quite frustrated. When UK took over on its own 25, it was time for a ground pounding.
Derrick Locke had 23 yards at the start of the drive, Alphonso Smith had 20 in the middle, Randall Cobb had 9 towards the end, and Will Fidler took it in for the tying score from 2 yards out. Sprinkled in were a couple completions by Fidler, including one key 4th down conversion to TC Drake.
When the defense quickly gave the ball back to UK, it was Randall Cobb time. Cobb, with his performance over the last couple games, is quickly become the closer on this team. The wide receiver/wildcat QB/punt returner busted a second down for 61 yards to the Auburn 3 yard line.
Then, dispelling rumors that he is in fact Superman, Cobb had to take the next two plays off, before taking a wildcat snap in for a third down winning score from 4 yards out.
We knew coming into tonight that it was going to take steady play from inexperienced QB’s and a great running game to pull off the upset. Newton and Fidler responded and the offensive line, backs, and Cobb did more than just respond.
UK had not had a single game 100 yard rusher since Rafael Little in 2007. Today, UK had TWO. Locke had 137 yards on 19 carries and Cobb had 109 yards on 12 carries. As great as those guys were and as many tackles as they shed, their efforts would have been for naught without the play of UK’s offensive line.
UK has protected exceptionally well over the past season and half, but we’ve been waiting for them to gash holes in their opponent on the ground. They did so in a big way tonight, to the tune of 306 rushing yards at a clip of 5.8 per carry. Regardless of who takes the snaps at QB, that job becomes quite a bit easier with that kind of running game.
So, with the big win, optimism is renewed and expectations are revived. We said from the second the schedule came out that winning just one of the stretch of four games that UK just completed could allow UK football to take another step forward. UK came within a couple plays of pulling off 2 wins in the stretch, but 3-4 is about as good as we could have expected. I’ll have a post in the coming days about looking at the rest of the season and what we can hope for and what we can expect, so look for that.
The other big issue of the week will again be the quarterback position. I imagine that Rich Brooks is going to have plenty of good things to say about both of his QB’s after watching tape and with a likely overmatched opponent coming to Commonwealth next Saturday in Louisiana-Monroe, I think we will see both again. I’ll have a post on this in the coming days as well.
For now, I’ll just say that it’s a good weekend to be a Wildcat!