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Playcalling Analysis: Alabama Edition

BBN knew heading into Saturday’s matchup with top-ranked Alabama that it would be a long shot to leave Tuscaloosa with a victory. Playing in a hostile environment against a team with advantages at virtually every position set the Cats up for certain doom.

Despite this, the Cats showed fight and kept scratching and clawing until the final whistle. Though I am not one to dish out “moral victories”, UK did enough things well for Kentucky to keep its spirits up heading into its most crucial stretch of 2016.

The game was mostly a dud on UK’s end, but some interesting things took place. UK scored on its opening possession for the first time this year, Gran unleashed some quick passing game concepts (something I have been clamoring for since Stephen Johnson was named the starter), showed new wrinkles and formations, and surpassed Alabama’s average yards allowed on the ground. The Cats consistent effort, however, really caught my attention as I watched from the Bryant Denny Stadium nosebleeds.

OC Eddie Gran kept to his usual M.O. early as he tried to call plays that kept the down and distance manageable starting with giving Johnson easy reads to build his confidence mixed in with outside zones and inside dives. However once again when UK was put into obvious passing situations, results were less than optimal. Johnson ended up with 89 yards through the air. He was sacked four times and fumbled on three of them.

With his QB under constant duress, Gran wanted to get his tight ends involved to make Bama’s ‘backers pay when they pressured Johnson. UK called two plays that previously yielded great results for CJ Conrad in the New Mexico St game (85 Waggle and PA Y Release) but were unable to have any success. UK’s tight ends totaled 16 yards on 5 targets.

Though Johnson started 3/4 for 32 yards with two great third down throws in the 1Q, he finished the game with a paltry 4 yards/attempt. Despite the subpar results of the aerial assault, I was pleased to see the evolution of the concepts used as  quite a few “rub” concepts were called. I go into more detail of a number of them here.

UK didn’t take many chances downfield. Most of Johnson’s attempts traveled less than 10 yards in the air. But if you recall, they did attempt a flea flicker. Unfortunately, Bama had it sniffed out.

UK’s best passing play totaled 26 yards on 2 calls. To my discerning eye (remember those pesky TV camera angles can limit was occurring downfield), it was the first time it was utilized. Like most OC’s, Gran goes back to plays that worked previously in the ball game. And though the Cats haven’t done particularly well on the second go-around, they were able to capitalize on this look.

It doesn’t take a “Football Freddie” to know that UK is a run-first offense. In fact entering Saturday, Boom Williams was Pro Football Focus’s second-highest graded back in the SEC. But with a stout run defense and the best front seven in college football, the Tide kept ground gains to a minimal. Boom had his least-effective game, and UK had to resort to “gimmick” formations to have its most fruitful series running the ball midway though the second half. For the first time this fall, UK ran the “Wildcat” outside the redzone. During the 15-play drive that resulted in UK’s final points, Kentucky ran the “Wildcat” five out of the drive’s first seven plays.

Though UK beat Bama’s average yards allowed on the ground, they were held to only 2 yards/carry (72 yards on 36). There’s a reason why Bama is a top-10 defense. Teams that often try to line it out and out-smash the Tide have similar results. Through four home games, Bama has only given up ONE touchdown.

Looking back, I am somewhat surprised UK didn’t lean on its RPO packages more. Only five of the Cats’ 55 meaningful snaps were such. UK typical averages double that in 2016. UK’s “favorite play” this year had been is RPO H Bubble. Before Saturday, it accounted for a little more than 10% of UK’s calls and accumulated the most first downs. Gran only ran it twice against Saban’s defense. Furthermore before the game, UK’s most potent call was its RPO X/Z screen ( it had the highest average gain of any UK call run at least 8Xs) was only called twice. UK lead off the second half calling it on back-to-back plays, but it was quickly abandoned.

Two-thirds of Kentucky’s play calls were runs, mostly inside dives. Excluding the seven “Wildcat” dives, UK ran inside 12 times with man schemes; only one trap was called. Inside dives had yielded the best results in UK’s run game, especially attacking the 3 hole (between the left guard and left tackle) totaling 83 yards on nine attempts. UK had 14 yards on 5 attempts doing so against the Tide.

Coming into the Bama game, only two drop back passes were called more than four times: X shallow and a Curl + Flats concept. Due to its simplicity and ability to be run with a number of personnel groups, Curl + Flats continued to be UK’s most called pass play; it was run a couple of times Saturday. UK’s new “rub” concept saw three looks.

Johnson didn’t look comfortable in the pocket, but few QBs do against Saban defenses. Still, it is not his strength. His throwing base remains to be too far apart often resulting in high passes. Ball security is also a notable complaint about the JUCO transfer. Gran has shown he’d rather give his young QB more time to throw by calling “Max” sets (calling for RBs and TEs to stay in as pass blockers instead of running routes) as opposed to calling for quick concepts.

From someone with a spread offense background, quick passes can be a QB’s best friend when going against aggressive defenses. Most are pre-snap reads, meaning the QB has a good indication of where he wants to go with it before he gets the snap from center instead of reading the coverage in his drop back. Instead of taking 5-7 steps in a drop back (1-3 from the gun and pistol), the QB is expected to plant and throw. Slants, meshes, rubs, hitches, and benches are all typical quick concepts, and UK has seldom called them with Johnson.

Though they might not result in the big gainers as often, they can keep down and distance situations manageable, which is crucial for a run-oriented scheme. With speedsters like Jeff Badet, Juice Johnson, and Ryan Timmons and big targets like Tavin Richardson, Kayaune Ross, Blake Bone, and the tight ends, UK has the personnel to get creative with these concepts. Gran has thus far preferred to attack Ds with intermediate routes instead.

Though their offense is limited to bascially whatever Ralph Webb does, A win won’t come easy as Vandy’s defense is very disciplined and is quite good at mucking games up. They are in the nations top-third in TO margin and boast a top-15 squad at defending the redzone. For what it’s worth, ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the ‘Dores 55% chance of leaving Lexington victorious, but UK opens as a 3-point favorite (Home teams are given three points when spread setting; so if this game was played on a neutral site, there’s not much separating these two in their eyes).

Stop me if you have heard this before, but the Vandy game might be the most pivotal game in Stoops’ tenure. A loss all but seals the teams fate to once again miss out on a bowl game, but a victory gives the team a .500 record halfway through the season.

Clark Brooks
Clark Brooks
Former two-time football state champion at Lexington Catholic High School. Graduated with Journalism and Marketing B.A.s from the University of Kentucky. Featured in six different publications. Humungous football fan, avid basketball fan, and sports business and advertising professional. BBN

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