Kentucky football: Will winning ugly eclipse the history of passing big (but losing)?
As 6-1 Kentucky, No. 12 in the current AP poll, prepares for two of the biggest weeks in the program’s recent history, a funny thing comes into focus. Something is, well, different for these Wildcats. Not the winning, although that is different. It’s the passing, or maybe the lack of it.
In the last two decades, Kentucky football has had two twin traditions — struggling to be even competitive in the SEC, and passing the football. It started in 1997, with the arrival of Air Raid Guru Hal Mumme, who turned Tim Couch from a freshman backup who was considering a transfer to a Heisman candidate. After Couch came Jared Lorenzen, and after Lorenzen came Andre Woodson. They won some, but they passed a lot.
For instance, in October 1998, Couch led a 3-1 Kentucky team to Arkansas. That night, he was 47-for-67 for 499 yards and 3 touchdowns. Kentucky lost 27-20.
Two seasons later, freshman starter Lorenzen led Kentucky in a home game against a struggling Vanderbilt team. Lorenzen was 33-for-55 for 385 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Kentucky lost 24-20.
Woodson, the QB who in 2007 last led UK into the AP top 25, had some big wins, including an upset of top-ranked LSU. He also had plenty of games in which a bunch of passing yards still left UK on the short end of a top-tier SEC team. Take his final home game, a 52-50 loss to Tennessee, in which Woodson passed for 430 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Over the past three seasons, Kentucky has started winning many of those SEC games it used to lose. But it doesn’t always look pretty.
Rag-armed but big-hearted QB Stephen Johnson had some clunkers in victorious causes. The last time Kentucky hosted Vanderbilt, the Wildcats hung on for a 20-13 win. Johnson was 10-for-24 for 49 yards and an interception. In a 2017 win over Tennessee, Johnson was 6-for-15 for 46 yards. Fans loved the wins, but the ground-and-pound attack style chafed against Kentucky football culture.
All of this has been a warmup for 2018, when Kentucky has soared to a 4-1 mark in SEC play and the verges of a national top 10 ranking. Mobile QB Terry Wilson has been awkward as a passer — when he has bothered to pass at all.
In UK’s 14-7 win over Vandy, Wilson was 3-for-9 passing for 18 yards. It’s not as if it was the first time — in Kentucky’s 28-7 win over Mississippi State, Wilson finished 8-for-14 for 71 yards and an interception.
Kentucky fans who would otherwise be head over heels spend the time that used to be awaiting basketball season dreaming of a more pass-efficient QB — sophomores Gunnar Hoak or Danny Clark being the most likely suspects — and carping on Wilson’s shortcomings.
Which is unfortunate. Kentucky’s massive team success aside, Wilson does bring plenty to the table.
In the win over Vandy, Wilson carried the football 12 times for 91 yards. His mobility also helped to avoid any big-loss sacks and kept the Commodores defense at least somewhat honest on the possibility of a play on the perimeter from Wilson — which opened the middle for Benny Snell’s 169 rushing yards.
For the season, Wilson’s 395 rushing yards rank 16th in the SEC and second among quarterbacks in the league, trailing only Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald (who had his own poor passing game Saturday night). His athleticism helped him escape from dangerous situations in Kentucky’s win over Florida in the Swamp. Yes, in his second collegiate game, Wilson engineered an upset over a team that Kentucky hadn’t beaten in 32 years.
There was a time when the win over Florida would have earned Wilson a statue outside Kroger Field. Now that Kentucky is 6-1, the atmosphere tends to focus more on “What have you done for me lately?” with the emphasis lying heavily on lately.
It’s a poorly kept secret that Kentucky has to diversify its offense to keep pace with Missouri and Georgia over the next two weeks. In the meanwhile, Kentucky fans would do well to set aside the glory days of Couch, Lorenzen and Woodson. None of those big-armed passers had a junkyard-dog defense like Wilson enjoys. Neither had a bruising, physical back like Snell to lead their offenses.
And neither had much of a chance to be a factor in the SEC East race, as the current Kentucky team does. These days in Lexington, the column for “passing yards” is conspicuously empty, but the column for “wins” is in better shape than it has been in 40 years. Winning ugly may yet become stylish in Lexington.