UK-U of L: Sunday second thoughts

Ten observations made before getting a good second look at the UK-U of L game (watched the first quarter over again last night, but not much else):

1. JOKER PHILLIPS’ OPENING SCRIPT WAS OUTSTANDING. The Wildcats’ first 8 or 10 plays, for the most part, completely overpowered Louisville and set the tone for the whole game. Particularly the first play. On SportsTalk 84 with Lachlan McLean last week, we were debating whether Phillips would come out conservative or take some chances. Had the same discussion with Rick Bozich on our weekly Tuesday webcast. My view was that if you came out throwing deep, and succeeded, it gave you a chance to completely knock U of L’s defensive screws loose at the start. That’s what happened.

On the very first play, Phillips picked on U of L free safety Mike Evans (pay no attention to the official participation report, it was Evans, a transfer from Nevada who sat out last season with an injury). It was a simple play, where wideout Chris Matthews took Curry Burns toward the inside in man coverage, and La’Rod King came behind those two. Evans, for just a second, had his eyes in on quarterback Mike Hartline and got a bad jump covering King, and Hartline made an easy throw to him wide open on the right sideline for a 37-yard completion.

UK scored a play later on good individual effort by Derrick Locke, who ran past some overpursuit by U of L, then cut back across the defense (“Something that should never happen,” U of L coach Charlie Strong said, all the way in for a score.

2. CHARLIE STRONG MADE SOME NICE ADJUSTMENTS. He downplayed this in the postgame, saying U of L’s defensive improvement was merely players carrying out their assignments better, but there were some personnel changes — notably Shenard Holton taking over at free safety (wound up leading the team team with 8.5 tackles) and Hakeem Smith, a redshirt freshman, who came in at strong safety and wound up with 5.5 tackles. Each of those guys had a tackle for loss. And on offense, there were some significant tweaks. U of L coaches obviously saw something at halftime and jumped all over right side of UK’s defensive line for big runs to open the second half. The passing game also picked up a little.

3. U OF L OFFENSE. It was only Game 1 of the Strong era, but in our C-J live chat we were already hearing grumbling over play calls, and I will allow that some of the slow-developing runs and delayed handoffs don’t appear to be effective with this bunch. It’s one thing if Percy Harvin is getting the ball on those stretch plays, but U of L had nowhere near the speed it needed to pull some of those off. It was more effective, I thought, when it used more power running, getting Powell the ball when he was running downhill or already sweeping around the tackles. And to Strong’s credit, we saw a lot more of this in the second half.

Here’s the larger issue. You can only do so much in a spread offense if the defense doesn’t have to respect you downfield. If I recall right, U of L took only a few shots deep — one resulted in a pass interference call and another was dropped by Troy Pascley. Those were the most notable. At any rate, it is hard to spread a defense that knows the offensive attack is going to come on the ground or at short range in the passing game. The problem for U of L is that this was less a function of play calling than of opportunity. Receivers simply weren’t getting open. Period. You can call all you want, but the plays just weren’t there. And I don’t know how this is going to change. Which brings me to …

4. THE LACK OF BIG-PLAY RECEIVERS AT U OF L IS SHOCKING. Aside from really good quarterbacks, the one thing that U of L has had in a virtually unbroken line going back to the 1990s is wide receivers. I’m just going to rattle them off the top of my head — Miguel Montano, Arnold Jackson, LaVell Boyd, Deion Branch, Zek Parker, Josh Tinch, J.R. Russell, Mario Urutia, Harry Douglas and even Scott Long — what U of L wouldn’t give for any one of those guys right now. And while Doug Beaumont is good, there was no one else on the field yesterday to take the defensive attention away from him. Once Josh Bellamy left with an injury, U of L just didn’t have anyone that was a threat. It’ll be interesting to watch the development of Andrell Smith, who appears to have the size to be effective. Cameron Graham, of course, was a bright spot in the receiving game at tight end. As I said in my column today, U of L wideouts caught only six passes against UK.

5. MIKE HARTLINE PLAYED WELL, and more than anything, made no mistakes for UK. He missed Randall Cobb on what should have been an easy touchdown pass leading to a missed field goal in the fourth quarter, but was efficient and did a really nice job with his feet, buying time on several plays and doing a really nice job of keeping his eyes downfield. I think he’s doing a better job of looking off defensive backs, or otherwise not tipping his hand before the throw is made. He keeps getting better. It’s hard not to believe that the QB job is his unless he does something to lose it.

6. UK OFFENSIVE LINE COACH MIKE SUMMERS IS THE REAL DEAL. The one thing most folks around here knew was that the UK line should not be cause for concern. Summers has molded far less talented lines than UK’s into Top 10 units in rushing offense. I think UK has a lot to look forward to from its offensive front as it improves over the course of the season.

7. DERRICK LOCKE AND RANDALL COBB. Not much needs to be said here. They were the two best players on the field, and the difference in the game. When Cobb left the game to go back to the locker room for IVs, though, the game evened up. That’s how close the margin can be sometimes. One big playmaker can make all the difference.

8. ADAM FROMAN WAS ALL RIGHT. He had five balls dropped, or his numbers — and U of L’s day — would have been a much different story. The thing you have to admire about Froman is that despite those drops, he stayed upbeat, kept leading the team, and kept saying the right things. He’s a mature guy with exactly the attitude you want who took those bad breaks, accepted them, and didn’t complain. On U of L’s last try for a TD, he threw a fade to the corner when he had a receiver open elsewhere, but there weren’t many knocks on his game. I expected to see his number called in the running game a little, but it wasn’t. If you’re going to run that choose play where he has the option of keeping it on the handoff with Powell, it figures that he should keep it a time or two (even if it doesn’t work) to make the defense respect that option.

9. RED ZONE WAS DEAD ZONE. You have to be able to run the ball in the red zone, line it up and pound. This has been a failing of U of L in the past three years, and it didn’t look much better yesterday. Not being able to punch it in from first and goal at the five is a red flag — and not the good kind for U of L, which settled for field goals in two red zone trips. UK, meanwhile, missed two field goal tries and scored on one of two red zone chances. So there’s some work to do there.

10. OUTLOOKS. Look, it wasn’t a red-letter day for either the Big East
or SEC on Saturday. Florida didn’t look great in its first game post-Tebow. Ole Miss loses to Jacksonville State. LSU struggled with half of North Carolina’s team. This season is an opportunity for UK if it can keep healthy and get things rolling. (It also, by the way, is a huge opportunity for Arkansas. I’ve said a couple of times I expect Bobby Petrino to win the west, and nothing happened this weekend to make me think any differently). For U of L, the Big East looks wide open. Pitt tanked at Utah. Cincinnati lost to Fresno State. UConn had nothing for Michigan. Syracuse, actually, looked good in beating Akron, though, and USF and West Virginia rolled, though neither was too impressive. In other words, it’s not a murderer’s row that U of L will face in conference. But the Cardinals still have a long ways to go to be ready for even that. The most promising thing about this opener for U of L, though, is that the team showed it can adjust and learn, and if this new staff can bring them along, even slowly, it’ll have some chances to make a few statements later on.

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