The University of Kentucky Wildcats hosted the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles in Lexington Saturday evening. It was a game that could inflict whiplash on even the most veteran college football viewers. After Southern Mississippi took an early 7-0 lead on their first possession, and followed that up with a punt block, they appeared firmly in command. Then the tides shifted on UK's second offensive possession, and it was UK's turn to land a few body blows.
Those blows would amount to UK scoring 35 first half points, accumulating 387 total yards, forcing three interceptions, to go along with two sacks and a handful of hurries. Quarterback Drew Barker was 11-for-19 for 287 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. New offensive coordinator Eddie Gran had the Wildcat's offense rolling, but there was trouble for the 'Cats bubbling towards the surface.
Southern Miss would add a quick score on a blown coverage right before halftime to make the score 35-17 heading into the half. Almost quietly, the Golden Eagles were approaching 300 yards of total offense themselves. UK's defense was lucky to force three interceptions or the score would have likely been much closer.
Southern Miss would make good on those underlying fundamentals, and score 24 straight points in the second half to take a 41-35 lead early in the fourth. By this point, UK had committed two turnovers of its own, and allowed nearly 500 total yards of offense. Southern Miss also had 29 first downs to UK's 13. Kentucky's offense only had possession of the ball for seven minutes in the second half.
The Golden Eagles offense dominated the second half. They would add their third field goal with a little over two minutes left in the fourth quarter after continuing to find success running the ball and forcing UK to burn their timeouts. On UK's next possession, down nine points with two minutes left, they turned the ball over for the third time.
Southern Miss now travels back to the land of Brett Favre with a SEC scalp. Defending Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year quarterback Nick Mullens finished with 258 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. Running back Ito Smith would torch UK's defense for 173 yards on 36 carries with one touchdown.
Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson earns bragging rights as he was fired after one season at the helm in Lexington last season, but his offense was a juggernaut on Saturday night. Overall, Southern Miss showed the mentality of a tough team that has previously tasted success. Battling back from a 35-10 deficit on the road makes them a favorite in Conference USA.
For Kentucky, the team looked eerily similar to last season, and showed nowhere near the fortitude of Southern Miss. The Wildcat's offense continues to be boom-or-bust which results in a handful of explosive plays, but also a disproportionate share of quick three-and-out possessions. The defense also looked as inept against the run, with an over-reliance on forced turnovers, just as it were last season.
This is troubling for the 'Cats at the beginning of a season with high stakes and slim margins. Mark Stoops has flipped the roster, prized recruits are now upperclassmen, and yet his teams continue to crumble when confronted with adversity. Despite South Carolina, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and Missouri all appearing underwhelming this weekend, UK's path to the post-season got much narrower after losing tonight - both from a mathematics standpoint but also from the ennui continuing to plague the program.
No post-season puts the Mark Stoops Era on life support. He won't get fired due to contractual issues, but recruiting will suffer, and if he can't win with his prized recruits as juniors there's little reason to believe he can lead them as seniors.