When UK football opened its season Saturday night against Southern Mississippi, the defense was something that many were concerned about, and unfortunately for the Cats, those concerns became reality.
Many felt that Golden Eagles QB Nick Mullens would be the one causing problems, but rather, the Golden Eagles used a potent ground attack in the second half to grab control of the half and ultimately the game, going on to win 44-35 after trailing 35-10 in the first half.
Behind a pair of 100 yard rushers, George Payne and Ito Smith, the Eagles completely decimated the Cats’ defense especially in the second half where they outgained UK 295-56.
After a horrid start to the game getting down 7-0 early, things began to look good for the Cats, who scored 28 unanswered giving them a 28-7 lead midway through the second quarter. At that point, many felt as if it would be another home-opening blowout win for the Cats, especially with the offense clicking on all cylinders.
UK would jump out to a 35-10 with 56 seconds remaining in the first half, but from that point on, the tide completely shifted and perhaps the most important play in the game, was one that was not made.
After three interceptions in the first half, two by J.D. Harmon and one by Blake McClain, McClain was put in perfect position for another with the Cats up 35-17. At the time, it would’ve been one that crushed any mojo that the Eagles might have brought out of the locker room. Instead of the routine interception, McClain dropped the ball and the Eagles would go on to score, completely shifting the momentum
From that point on, the Eagles were relentless and behind the aforementioned running game, they were able to score 34 unanswered.
Former Cats’ Offensive Coordinator Shannon Dawson was relentless in his play calling in the second half, exploiting UK’s biggest weakness, the front seven. Despite a very determined effort from the group, Dawson was able to make the Cats pay for their lack of depth.
“Bottom line it just came down to 3, 4 yards a pop in the run game and ultimately that can’t happen,” defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said about what hurt them the most. “The way that we have to sure it up, is we have to establish more depth and get some of those younger guys going.”
Although it was Eliot’s group that was on the field for an astonishing 95 plays, one cannot criticize his group too much simply because the offense was non-existent in the second half.
Behind QB Drew Barker, the offense, which scored all five of its touchdowns in just seven possessions, hit a wall and could not stay on the field.
Things were clicking early for the Cats and in the first half, Barker was 11-19 for 287 yards and 4 touchdowns, with two going to Garrett ‘Juice’ Johnson. After Jojo Kemp scored late in the first half, the Eagles defense ramped up its intensity and kept the Cats off the scoreboard for the entire second half.
Regardless of how well the offense played in the first half, they just could not stay on the field in the second half, and that proved to ultimately be the Achilles heel of an already thin defense.
One thing is for sure: the Cats now face an uphill climb when they travel to Gainesville to take on 1-0 Florida, and if the offense can’t stay on the field, things are not going to get any easier on the defense or the team.