Sometimes it’s best to reach out to a more unbiased observer when you wonder how to evaluate a team’s performance.
After watching Kentucky struggle to a 14-3 win over Western Kentucky last week in Nashville — especially when the previous game had been that dismal bowl loss to Pittsburgh in January — I wondered if the Wildcats had any chance to being bowl eligible or beating any Southeastern Conference team this year.
While the defense was more aggressive, it did allow receivers to get open for potential touchdowns only to have poor passes thrown. The offense struggled so much that coach Joker Phillips criticized the offensive line, receivers, tight ends and quarterback. Only the running backs got a passing grade.
Yet former UK All-American Derek Abney was not as discouraged as most UK fans with what he saw, and is not as pessimistic as most going into UK’s first home game Saturday against Central Michigan.
“The defense looked fantastic,” said Abney, the former UK¿all-purpose standout who is now a civil engineer living in Charleston, S.C. “A couple of time receivers got behind them and pass plays could have gone different, but you can fix that.”
But what about the offense that produced only 190 yards against a team that won just two games last year and allowed the 2010 Cats to score 63 points?
“Morgan Newton was not as bad as people thought,” Abney said.
Wait. Say what? Newton was 7-for-18 passing for 97 yards with three interceptions. He did throw a 31-yard scoring strike and have a 58-yard run, but his play was not nearly as good as I¿expected it to be.
“You could not have thrown prettier deep balls than he threw,” Abney, who caught plenty of deep balls at UK from Jared Lorenzen, said. “A couple of times on roll-outs he did overthrow receivers, but his deep balls were pretty and receivers just dropped them.
“I am not a big fan of Morgan running the ball, but I¿felt he ran with authority and maybe that’s what he going to have to do more of. What he really needs, though, is for his receivers just to catch the ball. The receivers, just like a defensive back that was burnt for a touchdown, have to forget the drops and know they are going to catch the next one. The worst thing you can do is worry about the one you dropped.”
But what about the apparent lack of enthusiasm by the Wildcats?
“Maybe that came from being shellshocked,” Abney said. “When you have big expectations going into a game and they are not met, it can result in you being shocked, especially if you have a lot of young or inexperienced players. I thought the defense was excited, and that’s where you usually see the most emotion any way.
“You can’t simulate an actual game for true freshmen or guys playing different roles. They have a lot of new guys playing. They have to learn what those roles are like. It should be a huge benefit now that the first one is done and they can just look at it as a dress rehearsal since they won. Now the should have a chance to improve.”
They better. No disrespect to Central Michigan, but the Chippewas are not South Carolina, Florida, LSU, Mississippi State, Georgia or Tennessee. They are not even Vanderbilt or Mississippi.
Kentucky needs a confidence-building performance offensively before it hosts Louisville on Sept. 17 in a must-win game to keep alive the Wildcats’ bowl hopes. If the Cats open the season 3-0 and then lose to Florida, South Carolina and LSU¿in games where they will be decided underdogs, they can bounce back with a win over Jacksonville State and be 4-3 with five games left. That would give coach Joker Phillips’ team until mid-October to get all the kinks worked out and put on a push to become bowl eligible and win SEC games.
But to get to even 4-3 and be in position to win any of the last five games, Kentucky has to shown signs of life offensively this week. Take away three plays — Josh Clemons’ 14-yard scoring run, LaRod King’s 31-yard scoring reception and Newton’s big run — and the Cats had 87 yards total on 47 other plays. That’s not even two yards per play against a so-so Sun Belt Conference defense.
The Cats have vowed they will be better offensively this week. Abney believes them. Me, I’m going to believe Abney because he knows a lot more football than me. And hope he’s right, because I sure don’t want to watch another offensive performance like the ones I’ve seen against Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Western Kentucky the last three times I’ve watched UK play.