Their stadiums are separated by just 80 miles, but on Saturday the football programs of rivals Kentucky and Louisville looked light years apart.
The Cardinals had ESPN’s “College GameDay” show on campus. They had a packed house and the nation’s attention. And with the spotlight brightest, they delivered, launching quarterback Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign and their own College Football Playoff pursuit in earnest with a 63-20 obliteration of No. 2 Florida State.
The Wildcats had a pitiful home crowd, announced at 49,669 but much closer to 30,000. They had the wounds of a Southern Miss collapse and Florida butt-whuppin’ still fresh. And with the flickering light of SEC Network’s alternate channel upon them, they struggled to put away New Mexico State despite 692 yards of offense.
Yes, Kentucky finally outpunched the Aggies for a 62-42 victory, its first of the season. Still, coach Mark Stoops still managed to lose something: all remaining confidence from a shriveling fan base that he is the man for the job. Days after the former Florida State (coincidentally) defensive coordinator vowed to take a more active role on that side of the ball, his Wildcats gave up 500 yards.
If he was finally in charge of the defense, and that’s his area of expertise, what does that say about Stoops?
The Aggies, who haven’t won more than four games in a season since 2004 and combined to go 8-40 the last four years, led Kentucky 7-0 and 14-7 and 21-14 and 28-21. They turned one of the few games these Wildcats were supposed to win comfortably into a full-blown shootout.
It was tied at 35 by halftime, after Kentucky yet again allowed a quick-strike touchdown in the final minute of the second quarter. That has become such a regular occurrence under Stoops that fans have come to expect it.
New Mexico State averaged 326 yards in its first two games – against UTEP and rival New Mexico – but had 345 yards in the first half against the Cats, who’ve now allowed at least 500 yards in each of their first three games of 2016.
The only thing worse than playing so poorly in Year 4 of a supposed rebuild, which now looks more like a regression, is doing it while your rival rockets toward the top of the national polls. Had Ole Miss’ early lead held against Alabama on Saturday, Louisville might’ve hit No. 1 this week.
Oh, and those Cardinals are led by Bobby Petrino, who was on the market – albeit with a metric ton of baggage – when Kentucky hired Stoops. Checkered past or not, many UK fans begged athletic director Mitch Barnhart to hire Petrino in December of 2012.
Instead, Petrino did a one-year rehab stint at Western Kentucky, where he opened the Stoops era with a win over the Wildcats in 2013, before returning to Louisville to continue haunting Kentucky’s nightmares. The Cardinals have roared back from late deficits to deny Stoops and the Cats a bowl berth to end each of the last two seasons.
At least in those cases, the gap between the programs didn’t seem so wide. Saturday it looked as vast as the space between Kentucky’s defensive backs and New Mexico State’s all-alone wide receivers.
To be clear, there were some genuinely encouraging developments for the Wildcats against the Aggies. Backup quarterback Stephen Johnson II was almost flawless in relief of an ineffective (and then injured) Drew Barker, completing 17 of 22 passes for 310 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions – and rushing 10 times for 51 yards. To everyone’s surprise, he might be the long-term answer there.
Junior running back Boom Williams ripped off 181 yards on 18 carries, which was less surprising than true freshman Benny Snell bulldozing his way to 136 yards and 4 touchdowns on 17 carries. Those guys and tight end (gasp!) C.J. Conrad finally getting involved, to the tune of 5 catches for 133 yards and 3 touchdowns, surely provided a glimmer of hope as coordinator Eddie Gran’s offense performed about as perfectly as is possible.
But that defense. It’s awful. It has been awful for going on four years now. And Stoops is the boss of that.
Down the road, Petrino is in charge of the offense at Louisville, and it looked awesome Saturday. While the rival Cardinals revved their engines with the college football world watching, the Wildcats slugged it out with a Sun Belt team in a half-empty stadium.
Some days, even a win is a loss. For Kentucky, that was Saturday.