Rapid Reaction: Special teams cost Kentucky in Death Valley
A few quick thoughts from Kentucky’s lopsided 41-3 loss to LSU in Baton Rouge:
What it means: The loss means Kentucky still has a lot of work to do to reach the top tier of the SEC. The Cats’ 5-1 start to the season had the Bluegrass buzzing, and Kentucky is still a team with a lot of promise considering it finished 2-10 each of the last two seasons, but it showed it is still far from competing with the perennial powers of the SEC. LSU looked faster, stronger and more disciplined, and Kentucky appeared overwhelmed in the moment for most of the night. The Wildcats only played one road game in their first six contests, and they lost that game. In their second road game of the year and their first game against an SEC West opponent, they looked even worse. Kentucky is still likely to reach a bowl game, but its chances to win the SEC East appear much less likely. This team has plenty of talent, but it’s still learning what it takes to have a target on its back.
What I liked: Kentucky’s defense played better than the final score leads on, as it was stuck on the wrong end of the field position battle all night thanks to an inconsistent offense and some putrid special teams. The Cats gave up 17 early points, but seven came on a punt return touchdown and seven more came on a drive set up by a long kickoff return (LSU averaged a mere two yards per play on that drive). This held true all game, as special teams blunders continued to put the defense in bad situations. The Tigers wore the Wildcats down in the second half with the result already decided, padding some numbers in a blowout win, but the defense did all it could to keep the game close for most of the first half. It was Kentucky’s offense and special teams that failed to take advantage, resulting in a terrible loss.
What I didn’t like: The special teams. Anything relating to Kentucky’s special teams could be considered disastrous, be it the long returns, LSU’s successful onside kick down the field late in the first half, Kentucky’s lack of a return game or Landon Fosters sub-40 yard average per punt. The special teams gave up critical points when the game was still close in the first half, and it gave LSU an enormous field position advantage all game long. The loss can’t be blamed solely on the special teams, but the special teams certainly deserve the most blame of any unit(s) in Kentucky’s lineup.
Who’s the man: There weren’t many exceptional performances by players in blue, but senior wideout Demarco Robinson had a nice game in the devastating loss. Robinson led Kentucky with three catches for 52 yards, headlined by an exceptional 33-yard reception down the sideline late in the first half to keep a UK drive alive (although that drive ended without points). The Wildcats have few productive seniors on their roster, but Robinson has blossomed into a dynamic weapon with exceptional speed in his final season as a collegiate. This is the best Kentucky team he’s played for, and his effort never dropped even as LSU continue to mount a bigger and bigger lead as the second half progressed.
Key play: Kentucky trailed 17-3 for most of the first half until a 32-yard touchdown toss from Anthony Jennings to Travin Dural extended LSU’s lead to 24-3 in the final minute of the half. That wasn’t the key play though — the ensuing kickoff was. LSU squibbed the kick down the middle of the field, not quite as short as a traditional onside kick and not as long as a deep kickoff. The ball took an awkward bounce in no man’s land in the middle of the field, and LSU chased down the ball and regained possession on an unorthodox onside kick. The Tigers would add another field goal before halftime, crushing any hopes of a Kentucky comeback in the second half. It was one of many sloppy plays by Kentucky’s special teams on the night, but this might be the Cats’ worst play all season.
What’s next: Kentucky won’t have long to regroup after the loss to LSU, as it returns home to host No. 1 Mississippi State next weekend in Lexington. The Bulldogs had an open date this week, and they should be plenty fresh for next week’s game. Mississippi State will be Kentucky’s first ranked opponent of the year, and will be the team’s second and final SEC West foe in 2014.