BIRMINGHAM — Kentucky came into the BBVA Compass Bowl Saturday hoping to answer a lot of questions.
The Wildcats may have got the answers, but not the ones they wanted, in a 27-10 loss to Pittsburgh that stopped UK’s streak of four straight winning seasons.
Kentucky had a punt blocked, botched a fake punt attempt, got into a scuffle on the field, dropped passes, made bad decisions and lacked emotion far too much of the game.
Instead of putting a strong stamp on the end of UK coach Joker Phillips’ first season, the Cats seemed to lack direction and the ability to execute just as they had in a disappointing loss at Tennessee to end the regular season.
“This obviously hurts,” said Phillips. “The reason why it hurts is our preparation. We worked so hard and we got to the game and did not play with a lot of confidence or poise. We had way too many penalties. We were not the most physical team out there. Pitt dominated the line of scrimmage.”
Here were the most intriguing questions UK had going into the bowl, and I how feel they got answered even though Phillips’ comments said plenty about the way his team played.
How would sophomore quarterback Morgan Newton do after getting his chance to finally play this year due to the suspension of senior Mike Hartline?
He fumbled on UK’s first series to stop a potential scoring drive at the Pitt 34-yard line, made an unnecessary move after a nifty third-down run that stopped another UK drive in Pitt territory and was often slow with his decision making as shown by the three sacks he took. Newton also either had trouble finding open receivers — or UK receivers couldn’t get open.
He was 21-for-36 passing for 211 yards and ran 12 times for 18 yards.
“We did not play well,” Newton said. “The quarterback has got to play better. More guys have got to make plays. We’ve got to clean it up.”
Yet both Phillips and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders thought Newton’s play was acceptable.
“Maybe there was one time he threw to the wrong guy. Other than that, I was pleased with how he played,” Sanders said.
Phillips said he thought Newton made improvement over the games he started as a freshman even though it was “not enough to win” the game.
Would new defensive coordinator Rick Minter make an immediate impact with the Wildcats’ defense after being hired last month?
The Cats played much more of the new 3-4 alignment that Minter had indicated he really wouldn’t implement until next season, but it didn’t matter. The defense did force a turnover to stop Pitt’s opening drive, but the same poor tackling that haunted UK most of the season still existed. The Panthers often just pounded the ball right at UK’s defense and had so much success one had to wonder why they didn’t do it more.
And when UK’s struggling offense did get a touchdown to cut the lead to 20-10, what did the UK defense do? It gave up a 12-play, 69-yard scoring drive to make it 27-10 and seal UK’s fate.
Kentucky gave up a respectable 357 yards, but 261 came on the ground where Pitt averaged 5.6 yards per attempt.
Could redshirt freshman defensive tackle Mister Cobble, who was academically ineligible the first semester, help the defense in his first game at UK?
He played a lot of snaps, but had very few results. Not that Cobble was bad, but he wasn’t the savior everyone had indicated — or hoped — he might be. However, it was probably unrealistic to expect he would make a huge difference in his first collegiate game playing for a new defensive coordinator who went to a new scheme against a team with a sound running game.
Cobble estimated he played 35 to 40 plays and was disappointed he didn’t do more to help UK win. However, he also was disappointed in how UK responded to Pitt’s physical play.
“We put our heads down and didn’t come back. We can’t do that,” he said.
Would Kentucky fans support the Wildcats the way they had in the four previous bowl games — three times in Nashville, once in Memphis — or would the date, distance and lackluster finish to the season keep fans away?
Kentucky football fans are the best. They braved chilly weather, a horrible date for a game and an antiquated stadium to support the Cats. While there was no official count, most of the fans at the game were wearing blue and there looked to be anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 fans watching what could only be termed a disappointing effort by the Wildcats.
Would this be the final UK game for junior receiver Randall Cobb, an all-American, or junior linebacker Danny Trevathan?
It could well be for both — and nothing from this game would make either more eager to come back.
Some NFL draft projections have Cobb, who set a new Southeastern Conference season all-purpose yardage record by adding 204 yards Saturday to bring his total to 2,396 yards, going in the second round. That makes it a no-brainer for him to leave — and receiver LaRod King even indicated Thursday he was expecting Cobb not to be back.
“I don’t know,” Cobb said when asked about his future Saturday. “I have a week now to figure it out. I will have a chance to go visit my family. There are still some things to think about. I’ll have a decision by next weekend.”
Trevathan, the SEC’s leading tackler, will be an undersized NFL linebacker and is projected as a third- to fourth-round choice. However, he’s been coy about his intentions and may well decide after this game that it is time to go.
And if Cobb and Trevathan both go, UK’s quest for a sixth straight bowl appearance is going to be as hard as beating Pitt turned out to be. This game showed UK’s lack of phyiscal play — again — and inablity to execute at key times — again. And don’t forget what turned out to be consistent inconsisten special teams play.
“I just never sensed we would play the way we did,” Phillips said.
He meant Saturday, but looking back at the 6-7 season, he probably could say the same thing.