Cats see future success in present failure



By Alex Forkner | Football Columnist

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An hour before kickoff, a healthy horde of Hilltopper faithful was already in its seats. This was a Western Kentucky home game after all, just one that migrated slightly south.

The fans clutched red towels, twirling them above their heads periodically. When they saw their team gathered under the giant “WKU” inflatable by the tunnel, their collective voice grew, slowly at first, then exploded as the players burst onto the turf.

Atop the heads of the Western players were spiffy chrome helmets, glinting in the sun and offering a 360 degree reflection of LP Field as the Hilltoppers went through warm ups.

Those helmets would introduce UK to their stiffest opponent — not the players wearing them, but the players in the reflection. In that mirrored image, the Cats faced their own shortcomings: A thin defense, an uninitiated offense and, possibly, a nagging self-doubt.

UK head coach Mark Stoops arrived in Lexington as a ballyhooed ball stopper, a defensive mind that would renovate UK’s long-struggling defense. As Saturday proved, that’s going to take some time.

“Leverage and position on the football was very poor,” Stoops said after the loss. “Some of that was just fundamentals. Some of it, there was a couple blown assignments. The whole thing was … there were many plays out there that were disappointing.”

UK surrendered 487 total yards to WKU. Hilltopper quarterback Brandon Doughty completed 27 of his 34 passes. Wildcat defenders were bounced off ball carriers like pinballs.

A lot of that struggle could be attributed to UK’s youth on defense, which should only improve as they gain more and more experience. Even more can be said for its lack of depth. If an injury bug bites the Cats like it did last year, opponents’ offenses can mark “vs. Kentucky” as a day for statistical bests on their calendars.

That other facet of the game brought fans crashing down from their “Air Raid” blimps. UK’s rushing yardage actually eclipsed its passing yardage, 216 to 203. Starting quarterback Jalen Whitlow passed for only 78 yards, leaving some heads, formerly full of visions of deep shots and long gains, being scratched.

Maxwell Smith’s relative success in the game has definitely reopened the battle for the starting job, to some fans’ delight. But the longer this offense goes without that one guy as leader, the longer it will stay dysfunctional. In an offense based so much on timing, the young receivers need reps with the guy who’ll be throwing in games.

And then there’s the less obvious matter the Cats saw staring back at them in those shiny, shiny helmets: The timidity, the doubt, the oppressive memories of failure that just might be bouncing around in their own helmeted heads.

This team is trying to learn how to win again. So many of those guys not only don’t know what success tastes like, they’ve never even seen it on a menu.

“I think it’s the hardest part when you’re turning a program around, is the mentality,” UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown said on Saturday. “I think one thing is we need to bring a lot more energy. We’ve got to do a better job as a staff getting that energy.”

As the coaching staff has said since their hiring, turning the program around is going to take some time. And if you’re judging by recruiting classes and fan excitement, UK’s future is looking bright.

Maybe not as bright as Western’s helmets, but bright, nonetheless.