A month ago, BBN was searching, heck, yearning for silver linings in this football team. The defense was porous, the offense was predictably limited, and the coaching staff looked to have little answers for the Cats laundry list of issues.
Flashforward to today after a weekend where Kentucky mauled the Missouri Tigers in a figurative cat fight 35-21 in a game that was far more distant than the two-score defeat displayed. Only a winless Austin Peay stands in the way of the Cats first bowl birth since 2010. Not to dismiss the mighty Governors, but Kentucky will win that game in two weeks. Though I can be a pessimist and a cynic, I just don’t see AP coming to Lexington and playing the role of spoiler. Say it with me: The Cats are going bowling!
Though it seems surreal, this is no dream for this team. They have come a long way. The offense is as potent as ever with two factor backs, Badet stretching defenses, and Johnson making throws. The defense is as physical as ever as there are fewer and fewer missed tackles, force more three and outs, and produce a lower yard/play average. I am proud of how this team was forced to evolve in the face of adversity with its coach’s job most likely on the line if they didn’t perform.
We can be giddy and joyous, but let’s take a step back. Come take a look at how UK took down a vulnerable Missouri team in Columbia.
The biggest reason UK had so much success on Saturday was its ability to pound the Tigers into submission with its run game. With wide splits from the front four and with Mizzou’s desire to stick in the nickel defense (that plays only two LBs with five DBs), UK found ample run room from start to finish. Once the Cats’ lead was secure, Gran displayed no interest in remaining in Columbia long. They wanted to continue to wear out the Tiger defense and milk the clock. In the second half, UK only ran three passes, one of which was a clearout screen.
In the process, this performance set a few records for UK’s backs. This was the only time UK had two backs eclipse 175 yards in SEC play and was the second highest total ever against conference foes. Since losing at ‘Bama, Kentucky has rushed for at least 250 yards each contest; something it hasn’t done in nearly four decades. Benny set freshman rush records for yards in a game and TDs in a season; sorry Cobb. Boom became only the third Wildcat ever to pass the 2,000 yard mark before his senior campaign. Both Boom and Benny had their personal bests in terms of yardage. I hinted at this before, but it is clear this team now has a clear identity.
UK’s ground strategy, as aforementioned, was to take advantage of Missouri’s Dline’s wide splits and force their linebackers and safeties to make plays in space one-on-one. UK ran power stuff but mostly leaned on its zone and RPO packages. Unlike power schemes, zone schemes are all about finding lanes and slashing through them instead of using muscle to create a hole. Leverage and position are key.
Though one of UK’s most effective run plays this season has been a dive play out of the pistol/gun, the Cats have only called two such runs since the bye week opting to run that scheme predominantly out of the Wildcat. In Kentucky’s two post-bye week games, dives out of the that have been dialed up 27 times.
Furthermore, UK’s Wildcat package continues to evolve and show new wrinkles. Like most offenses, UK first unveiled it’s Wildcat to be a change-of-pace tactic to slow the game down and grind out tough yardage by getting the ball to its power runners. But over the course of the last month, we have seen UK “Dallas” to and out of this formation at the line. A “Dallas” is where UK lines up in one formation and does a shift towards another. We have seen Johnson line up as QB and motion out to WR and visa versa. Being less static makes opposing defenses pay extra attention and respect the variables more. After all in a straight Wildcat, the threat of the pass is low. But when the QB motions in/out and has a history of reversing back to throw downfield passes, defenses have to stay honest or give up a potential big play downfield.
On Saturday, Gran kept show more and more formations in his Wildcat set. He showed trips (both stacked, bunched, and loose grouped), 2×2, and Ace with Twin WR in addition to his basic alignment. This set is trending up with more usage the past two weeks than ever before. Though no craziness was called like against Miss St, Kentucky remains to dabble with new blocking schemes out of the Wildcat. Though starting with only inside dives to the right or left side, powers runs (the backside guard pulls as a lead blocker) showed up in the Vandy game and zone schemes made their debut Saturday. There now isn’t a blocking scheme that UK can do in its non-Wildcat sets that it cannot execute out of the Wildcat. This makes it extra difficult for opposing DCs to prepare for with so many variables and talent with which to deal.
UK ran 21 RPOs, 11 Wildcat Dives, seven Wildcat Powers, eight zone reads, and six straight zone runs. It was clear Gran wanted to set this offense up to win in space by spreading out an already extended alignment.
Johnson didn’t have his best game. But once again, the young QB made big plays and won the ball game. He continues to progress and take pressure of UK’s rush attack since the bye. His success hinges on big plays by his WRs. Nearly half of his yards came off two plays. Chemistry with his receivers is much better than a month ago and even causal viewers can notice the change. Gran is taking more chances vertically that are direct results of Johnson being confident, not only in himself to make the throw but also his wideouts to make a play.
Of the 15 drop back passes called Saturday, all but five have been dialed up previously. Gran appears to have found a handful of concepts with which his QB is comfortable. Johnson has shown that he loves out routes by his slots, drive or double post concepts to the middle of the field, and opportunities to get an isolated Badet on a go-route. UK found success with drive concepts last week and will probably be a staple moving into the final stanza. Let me explain a “drive” concept.
Johnson once again failed to nail Conrad on the RPO Y Release and have his screen attempt to Greg Hart batted away so his number could’ve been better. He also forced a pass into tight coverage when the Cats were driving in the red zone. But, one cannot deny the progression he has made. His decisions are coming quicker and his balls are more catchable even if his arm strength leaves something to be desired.
The ten-play share was Wildcat Dives (11), RPO X/Z Screen (8), RPO H Bubble (8), Wildcat Power (7), RPO Double Bubble (5), 4 Zone Read (4), 5 Zone Read (4), 5 (4), Wildcat Zone (2), and 80 Slice (2). These 10 concepts composed 64.7% of UK’s calls against Mizzou, the highest mark of a ten-play share this season.
UK has been labeled an underdog in each of the last four games by ESPN’s Football Power Index. UK is undefeated in those game. It will once again get that label heading into its home bout against Georgia with only a 41.8% chance to win.
Look, a win is very much in play. UGA is showing noticeable growing pains with its rookie HC Kirby Smart. Though it has one of the SEC’s best backfields, it has glaring weaknesses across its roster. Plus the last time the Cats beat the Dawgs in CWS, Georgia started a freshman QB; just like this year. The old eye test says this fall has been a very rocky debut for Smart and they are ripe for an upset especially if UK’s 12th man is in attendance.
If UK can continue running the ball like it has, Kentucky can very well come out victorious. The Cats have been somewhat fortuitous over the last month. Despite being -11 in the turnover margin in that span, it hasn’t lost a game. With the talent and depth UGA has, Kentucky will not be so lucky if it loses the turnover battle this Saturday. They must protect the ball and remain efficient on its drives.
If CWS isn’t packed on Saturday, you are not a UK football fan. It is that simple. Though a likely bowl birth will arise the week after with a cupcake Austin Peay, UK could punch its ticket to a much more desirable landing spot if it can take care of business against UGA.
Where else would you rather be than primetime in CWS with a chance to win the SEC East? Be there.