COLUMN: Cats’ first-half woes an unsolved mystery



It has been the story of the season for the team — it falls behind in the first half, digging itself into a hole, and then mounts a roaring comeback, sometimes defeating and sometimes falling to its opponent (more often the latter when coming from behind).

The pattern is old news at this point, and having attended every UK football game this season, I am frankly tired of it.

But nobody has the answers to the weekly football riddle surrounding the Blue and White. The question marks enveloping the Cats’ first two quarters of play are aplenty, and neither the fans nor the professional analysts nor the coaching staff can pinpoint what the problem is.

“I wish we could play our second half in the first half, every game,” UK head coach Joker Phillips said following Saturday’s second-half comeback win over Vanderbilt, the second time the Cats came back after trailing at halftime this season.

It could be a number of things, though. Perhaps UK suffers from poor game planning pregame, or maybe it’s a lack of focus or preparation on the part of the players. Maybe the Gatorade isn’t cold enough in the first half — I just don’t know.

Or maybe they simply lack the “juice” (a.k.a. intensity) early in games.

“We talked about juice,” Phillips said Saturday. “I came in with juice, coach (Greg) Nord, coach ‘Rock’ (Oliver), we can have as much juice as we want. But if (the players) don’t have juice, it doesn’t matter — it really, really doesn’t matter.”

UK and its adversaries’ scoring by quarters is a clear sign of this tendency. Through the 11 games this season, the UK defense has allowed 90 and 106 points in the first and second quarters, respectively. The second half, though, is astonishing. The Cats’ defense has only given up 54 and 68 points in the third and fourth quarters, respectively, a combined 74 points less than it’s first half collective numbers.

Offensively, the Cats have been consistent. In fact, the 71- and 120-point first and second quarters match the 96- and 95-point third and fourth quarters. For those keeping track at home, that’s exactly 191 points in each half. Even still, the team’s chemistry and mentality does not appear as polished in the early portions of these games.

So, it seems the offense strikes early and often, but the defense, which has a million question marks of its own, severely struggles early. While excelling in the second half, it can’t do enough to bail itself out.

Not surprisingly, UK has trailed at the half in all seven of its conference outings (obviously, meaning its only four halftime leads came against nonconference opponents), coming back to win only two of those (undoubtedly because of the aforementioned hole it digs itself into).

There has been talk of allowing the team to play a couple of quarters on its practice field in Nutter Field House before marching over to “continue” the game against its actual opponent, thus getting the first two garbage quarters out of the way. But that sounds like a tough thing to pull off.

The repetition has been indicative of UK’s lackluster season. If the Cats had not fallen behind early against its two opponents from Mississippi earlier this season (both ended in losses by one possession), they would find themselves playing for a spot atop the Southeastern Conference East standings next Saturday against Tennessee.

Whatever it is, it has been the underlying trend that has bogged down what could have been a fairly dominant season for UK.

Shoot, just imagine what standout receiver Randall Cobb could accomplish if he were to play against UK’s first-half defense.

It wouldn’t be pretty for the defense.