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COLLEGE FOOTBALL OPIONION: Cats were generous to South Carolina (10/12)

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By Greg Crews

 

By GREG CREWS gcrews@thenewsenterprise.com LEXINGTON Is it just me or is the Christmas season starting earlier and earlier each year? It’s still nearly three weeks until Halloween, but the Christmas spirit was abundant in Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday as Kentucky and South Carolina handed gift after gift to each other. In the end, the Wildcats proved to be the more generous of the two, presenting the Gamecocks with a 24-17 win, wrapped with a shiny blue bow. “Every time we get something going, something bad seems to happen,” Kentucky senior wide receiver Dickie Lyons said. It was quite an apt statement from Lyons, who tore his MCL on an 8-yard catch which put Kentucky inside the South Carolina 5-yard line. On the next play, Kentucky had its 21-yard field goal attempt blocked and returned for a Gamecock touchdown. The score gave the Gamecocks a 14-7 lead in the second quarter and practically summed up the bizarre Southeastern Conference game. Coming into their SEC home opener, Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said the game would come down to turnovers (how original). However, Kentucky forced four turnovers — three of which were inside South Carolina territory — and still came up short. Brooks also said special teams would be extremely important (even more original), but South Carolina’s usually automatic senior kicker Ryan Succop missed 4-of-5 field goal attempts. Yet, it was inconsequential. What the game actually came down to was third downs. “They converted their third downs and we didn’t,” Brooks said. “And theirs were third-and-longs and ours were third-and-mediums.” The Gamecocks converted 8-of-17 third downs, five of which were third-and-10 or longer. In the fourth quarter alone, South Carolina converted on third-and-14, third-and-10, third-and-12 and third-and-5. Kentucky, meanwhile, converted just one of its 16 third downs. Imagine that, an offense which refuses to throw the ball more than 10 yards has a hard time converting on third-and-12. I understand that Mike Hartline is only a sophomore, and he probably doesn’t have a whole lot of confidence yet at quarterback, but Kentucky’s passing game is laughable. Regardless of the opponent this season, the Wildcats refuse to even attempt deep passes. Instead, they try to use screen passes and dump-offs, even when they are faced with third-and-long. In fact, four of Kentucky’s first six drives came to an end when it attempted screen passes on third down and couldn’t get the yards it needed to convert for first down. One other drive during that stretch ended with a 3-yard quarterback keeper on third-and-8. What Hartline and the rest of the offense are trying to do is avoid critical mistakes. However, what they are actually doing is telling their defense, “You had better win this one for us, because we’re certainly not going to.” Case in point: Kentucky’s final possession. A missed 39-yard field goal by South Carolina (its final gift to the Wildcats) gave Kentucky the ball with 2:13 remaining and 78 yards between it and overtime. The Wildcats threw seven passes in the final drive, managing only one completion. Predictably, it was a 5-yard dump off to running back Derrick Locke. The rest were inaccurate or poor decisions on the part of Hartline, who like the rest of the Wildcats, is beginning to show his youth. Unfortunately for Kentucky, there is no time for a learning curve. Not in the SEC. So, unless Hartline can somehow conjure up the spirit of his predecessor Andre Woodson in the upcoming weeks, it may just be time for a quarterback change. Greg Crews is a sports writer for The News-Enterprise. He can be reached at 505-1754 or gcrews@thenewsenterprise.com