Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops fired his offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson this offseason, nearly a year to the day after pulling him away from West Virginia. The firing seemed justified at the time. In his one season guiding the Wildcats’ attack, their numbers stayed relatively stagnant; UK finished the 2014 season tied for 76th nationally in yards per play, and in ’15 ranked tied for 78th. Kentucky collapsed down the stretch for the second consecutive season, so Stoops felt he needed to present a head to the screaming blue masses, lest they come for his own. So he eschewed Dawson to hire both Darin Hinshaw and Eddie Gran away from nearby Cincinnati.
And through one half on Saturday night, Stoops’s plan looked like a smart one.
Dawson’s new team Southern Miss just happened to open at Kentucky, and the Wildcats jumped out to a 35-10 second quarter lead.
But Dawson’s Eagles offense moved 84 yards in three plays just before the half to pull within 35-17. Then they marched 84 yards to open the second half, and now the score was 35-24. And then Southern Miss moved 66 yards in eight plays to pull within 35-31.
On its next possession, Southern Miss again found the end zone, marking four straight touchdowns to turn a 35-10 lead into a 38-35 advantage.
Kentucky finally slowed down the Flying Shannon Dawsons on their final two possessions — sort of. Both traveled more than 50 yards, and both ended in field goals.
Overall, Southern Miss moved 409 yards over 55 plays and six possessions, producing 34 points over that span.
“Coach Dawson and all that he’s gone through, I am happy for him,” Stoops told the Louisville Courier-Journal afterward. “Obviously, I want our team to play better, but he did a heck of a job and they kept us off balance.”
Meanwhile, Kentucky’s offense went completely in the tank.
The Wildcats’ second half touches moved 24 yards before losing a fumble, lost 11 yards in a three-and-out, threw an interception, moved five yards and punted and, in what proved to be their final snap of the night, gained 28 yards before losing another fumble.
Even former Kentucky head coach Hal Mumme tossed some shade at his former team through a praise for Dawson.
It was a loss Stoops could not afford to bear, not only for his ego but to avoid UK backers finding the $12 million necessary to buy him out after two straight late-season collapses and, now, one epic late game thud to open a season that was supposed to bring so much more.
After all, Stoops hired new offensive coordinators and everything.