Let’s not kid ourselves, last night’s game with South Carolina would either make or break UK’s season. A loss would have made Kentucky’s bowl hopes as realistic as me marrying Sofia Vergara and put extra pressure on the current staff desperate for positive results. A win would quiet the outside noise and propel UK towards a scenario where it could have its first winning season in seven years.
All week long the program, particularly Head Coach Mark Stoops, was the center of negative rumors. But, all that was put to bed with the Cats third-straight win over the Gamecocks in a hard-fought and physical 17-10 rock fight. This is the first time since 1957-59 UK defeated a team not named Vanderbilt that many times in consecutive seasons. It was a HUGE win that kept Kentucky’s season afloat. So, let’s see how the Cats took care of business.
Going into the game, I figured UK’s gameplan would mirror that of a Nick Marshall attack that Auburn employed on its way to a National Championship Runner-Up season in 2014. Meaning Run-Pass-Options, zone reads, and seldom drop back passes would be the formula for success. After all coming into Saturday, RPO’s and zone reads accounted for about a third of UK’s plays and about 25% of its offensive yardage. But, it was UK’s power game that won them the game, and I was pleasantly surprised how effective it was.
UK still used its RPO packages, but most had power run wrinkles that had previously not existed. A good number of them asked the backside guard to pull when instead of the line following a straight zone blocking scheme. This wasn’t the case on every play, but it was apparent Gran wanted his line to be physical and win at the point of contact against SCar’s front seven.
Though a fumble stymied Kentucky’s first drive near midfield, UK quickly established its run game during the 1Q averaging 6.1/rush during that span, but had difficulty maintaining drives when forced to air it out.
Gran calls really tried to limit “obvious passing situations”, which could be considered 2 and 8+ and 3rd-and-long to the laymen. In those situations, UK didn’t call anything discernibly crazy and stuck with simple concepts; the results were mixed.
Stephen Johnson is an effective mobile threat but is very suspect passing from the pocket at this point in his career. When his primary read was not there, SJ immediately looked to scramble instead of finish his progressions. Though he started 7-7 for 62 yards, he ended 4-12 for 73 yards and an INT with two fumbles (though both were recovered). Gran sprinkled in a few rollouts and play actions passes to aid his JUCO transfer’s downfield vision and play to his strengths. Though he made a handful of impressive throws, he is still far from a polished passer.
UK wasn’t able to do much in the 2Q. Though it got a field goal minutes into it, the Cats only totaled 30 yards on 12 plays before the failed hook-and-ladder attempt right before the half.
UK made noticeable half time adjustments by deploying its “heavy set” often in the second half. Prior to Saturday, UK only used it six times. But the first time UK lined in it, Boom Williams took it 43 yards to the house. Let’s relive the glory here.
UK lined up “heavy”, where both TEs were on the same side with one off-setting the other, 18/30 plays after that TD. On its game-deciding TD drive, the Cats leaned heavily on this set. Instead of diagraming a standalone play, I talk about the drive from start to finish.
UK really wanted its line and RBs to win the game for them. This was the portion of the game where its power and man blocking overtook its zone looks. UK only used zone blocking for 6/27 second half designed runs. Execution was excellent and it kept its defense well-rested for the close of the game.
Against Scar, approximatly 38% of UK’s play calls and 42% of yardage consisted of man/power schemes while zone blocking plays totaled 22% of calls and 28% of the Cats’ offensive yardage. For those who aren’t “Football Freddies”, these plays are all designed runs with the exceptions of RPOs, which of course add an extra quick pass element. FYI, power and man blocking schemes combined to total 13% of UK’s yardage coming into the game.
Despite sounding like a 1970’s sitcom, Boom and Benny will continue to be focal points of this offense and help make Johnson’s job easier as he keeps growing as a passer. I cannot understate how vital UK’s run game was to this victory and preserving their defensive teammates stamina. After Saturday, Boom is second in the SEC in rushing yards with 464, and Benny is tied with TAMU QB Trevor Knight and Vandy RB Ralph Webb to lead the conference with five rushing TDs.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it, Alabama will be a major test. Even if the Cats come out with tenacity and execute well, they probably won’t come back from Tuscaloosa with a W. Every team that tries to line it up and out-muscle Nick Saban’s defenses usually gets embarrassed and humiliated. Plus with UK’s limited passing offense with Johnson under center, odds are things will not end pretty next week primetime on ESPN. Bama has only allowed ONE TD at Bryant-Denny through three games in 2016. Points will be hard to come by for the Wildcats against the country’s 15th ranked defense in hostile territory.
But with Saturday’s win mustering much needed momentum, the Cats have its “easiest” remaining stretch after next weekend with home games against Vandy and Miss St before traveling to Mizzou. A bowl can still be in the picture. The question is can they weather the storm and keep their eye on the prize and keep responding positively to adversity as the season progresses.