LEXINGTON, Ky. — Let’s give Mark Stoops the credit he deserves right off the top here, because very shortly we will give him the full ration of hell he should receive for the disaster that is his Kentucky football team’s defense and discipline.
The man inherited god-awful talent and embarrassing facilities for an SEC program. He took over a team that went 2-10 before he arrived and lost a secret 7-on-7 scrimmage to an FCS team his first summer. Out of those ashes, the Wildcats rose under Stoops.
The university fixed the facilities with glittering upgrades and additions, while the coach rectified the talent problem with 4-star recruits and a new Ohio pipeline. And on Saturday, Kentucky completed its second straight 7-5 regular season, which considering this program’s modest history might be cause for dancing in the stands at Kroger Field.
There was no dancing. There was disgrace.
The Wildcats, with a chance to win eight regular-season games for the first time in 33 years, instead took a beating at the hands of rival Louisville. But the 44-17 final score wasn’t the embarrassing part.
Stoops, whose entire coaching reputation before coming to Lexington five years ago was built upon the notion he is a defensive guru, was once again powerless to stop an opponent. The Cardinals scored on their first eight possessions and ran up 562 yards, somehow completely dwarfing a career day by UK running back Benny Snell: 29 carries for 211 yards.
On its face, of course, there is no real shame in getting lit up by reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, who threw for threw for 216 yards and ran for 156. But Saturday was no exception, rather the rule.
In Year 5 under the former Florida State defensive coordinator whose roster is finally stocked with only players he recruited, Kentucky entered this game ranked 116th nationally in pass defense. Did we mention Stoops’ specific area of expertise is coaching defensive backs?
And yet, even the leave-at-least-one-guy-open-every-play approach was not the most pitiful part of what Stoops and Co. did against Louisville.
No, because the Wildcats’ best tackle of the day came from unhinged linebacker Jordan Jones — who behind the scenes has been teetering on the edge of acceptable behavior for three years, spit at Southern Miss fans in the opener back in September and should’ve been reined in a long time ago but hasn’t been — when he got into a shoving match with Jackson in the first quarter and then de-cleated him on the sideline.
Jackson shared responsibility for that exchange, but Jones took it several degrees too far and deserved to be ejected. He was not, so he stayed in the game long enough to draw consecutive unnecessary roughness penalties in the second half — during a pitiful string of three straight personal fouls on UK’s defense.
Cameras at different times caught Jones appearing to argue with Stoops and storm out of a huddle, then arguing with other staff members on the sideline.
And here’s all you need to know about how Kentucky blew what might’ve been a 9- or 10-win season by folding against Florida and Ole Miss and laying down against Louisville: After every one of those egregious offenses, Stoops sent Jones back onto the field to play.
See, Stoops didn’t suddenly forget how to coach defense. And he has better talent than most UK coaches before him. You get here, to this place where opponents run wide open more often than not, by having no discipline.
That starts at the top. After the game, Stoops called Jones “an extremely emotional player” and admitted he needs to do a better job of “holding his feet to the fire.”
I’ve watched Stoops lose his cool — and then his mind — too many times to count on game days. All it takes is one call he doesn’t like, and two, three, four plays might go by before Stoops stops seeing red and realizes the game is still in progress. That has cost Kentucky before, no matter what he tries to tell us.
He is two things an SEC coach cannot afford to be: quick-tempered and thin-skinned, the latter of which has become uncomfortably obvious this season as he stews in his seat during Monday press conferences and his weekly call-in radio show about a lack of praise for another winning season.
Can you fathom Nick Saban doing that? Or tolerating Jones’ behavior — for three seconds, let alone three seasons?
So let’s give Stoops the credit he deserves, for bringing Kentucky football back from the dead, but let’s not make excuses for a man who gets a $250,000 bonus for every win after six. This season was solid because of Stoops, but it failed to be special because of him, too.