Mark Stoops and UK defense make a point against the Air Raid
Of course, we all knew that this game was about Mike Leach coming back to Kentucky. Among many others, I pointed out the history of Leach’s 2-year run in Lexington, and the high-octane offensive shenanigans that ensued. So Saturday night, when Mississippi State came to Lexington, there was more than usual on the line for a matchup of two of the SEC’s traditionally less-than-dominant programs.
In many ways, Saturday night was about an idea … and the idea is that Kentucky needs to throw and throw now.
Let’s go back to those glorious years of 1997 and 1998 with Leach and Hal Mumme and Tim Couch. Given the best quarterback in school history and an offensive wizard calling the plays, Kentucky went … 12-11. While UK “upset” morbid Alabama and LSU programs in 1997 and 1998 respectively, probably the best quality win of the Couch/Leach/Air Raid years was over Mississippi State in Lexington in 1998.
Lost in all the passes and yards and fun is the fact that Kentucky didn’t win an especially big number of games. Mumme’s time in Lexington looks a lot like most of the other UK coaches over the years in terms of wins and losses, if not in terms of passing yards and points scored.
And since the time Mumme left town in 2000, with a few brief exceptions (2006 and 2007 with Andre Woodson and Rich Brooks, for instance), the cry has resounded around the Big Blue Nation — throw the ball more! Bring in an offensive wizard to pile up points! It’s the only way Kentucky can win.
Except that it isn’t. The Kentucky coaches who have managed brief bursts of success — Bear Bryant in the late 1940s to mid-1950s, Fran Curci in 1976 and 1977, Brooks from 2006-2009, and now Mark Stoops have mostly been defensive types who relied more on slowing opponents than in bombing them into submission. Sure, there were exceptions. Babe Parilli in the early 1950s and Woodson in 2006 and 2007 were All-SEC level players. But Bryant and Brooks were just as at home grinding out wins with ball control and ball-hawking defenses. Curci’s best quarterback was a future NFL tight end … and Stoops’ best may well be either Terry Wilson or wide receiver Lynn Bowden.
As for Leach, his name has bounced around Lexington throughout the two decades plus since he moved on from UK. Wherever he goes, footballs fly, fans are entertained, and a reasonable modicum of success ensues. Of course, he’s not out there making the CFP any more than Kentucky is … but he’s entertaining in his solid seasons, particularly so back on the West coast where “defense” may actually be a dirty word.
Meanwhile, Stoops does not win glamorous games. From Stephen Johnson to Wilson to Bowden, Kentucky’s been quite content to rush for 400 yards and pass for a meager number of yards on a safe set of pass plays — so long as the end result is a victory. Stoops has brought the Kentucky program back to a level few fans have seen — despite a 2-10 first season with MAC-level players in 2013, he’s currently 1 game below .500 for his Wildcat career, while the last UK coach to leave the school with a winning mark was Blanton Collier, who was fired in 1961 after going 41-36-3 in 8 years. It took time (4 years for the first bowl appearance) and Stoops’ brand of football doesn’t always produce must-see television, like Saturday’s win with its 157 total yards of offense.
Meanwhile, Leach landed in Starkville and amid the doubts about whether Air Raid would work in the SEC, his Bulldogs set a league passing record in a Week 1 win at LSU. There it was, insisted the “throw it more” crowd in Lexington. All he needed was a chance. He should’ve been in Blue and White years ago.
Maybe he should have. But the luster has come off the Air Raid’s Starkville edition with a humbling Week 2 loss to an Arkansas team gaining its first league victory in 3 years … and on Saturday night, with only a poor punt snap keeping the Bulldogs away from a shutout. Leach’s Bulldogs threw and threw and threw. Kentucky played defense, flipped the field, and made a couple of decent offensive plays. And they won, with relative ease.
Stoops is not a man prone to grandiose gestures, particularly at his critics. He mumbles clichés and coaches defense. And he wins games, albeit more with recruiting and coaching than with smoke or mirrors. But he could be forgiven for seeing Saturday night as a referendum on his time in Lexington. Throwing more does not necessarily mean winning. And just maybe, when Mitch Barnhart brought in a defensive guy and preached patience, he was building an ultimately better program than going for the sexy scoreboard lighting offensive geniuses. Because that’s certainly what it looked like Saturday night when the Air Raid got a hostile welcome in its return to Lexington.