Too many coulda, woulda, shouldas occurred last Saturday night. Despite winning the turnover battle for the first time this season, UK let one slip away in a close 24-27 defeat to the Georgia Bulldogs.
The win would’ve vaulted the Cats to a bowl and put them in the discussion to possibly represent the SEC East in Atlanta.
But for the first time as a head coach Mark Stoops squandered a fourth quarter game. Prior to Saturday, UK won 31 straight games in which it held a lead entering the final stanza. I know ample time has passed for others to look at this game and dissect it inside out, but let the master show you how the Cats let this one get away.
A week after returning to its “roots” with spread zones and read options in the run game, I figured UK would venture back to the power game that has been paving the path for recent success on offense. Though a lot of the Wildcat was called against the Tigers, UK took advantage of Missouri’s nickel defense and the ample space in the box. They let the faults of the 4-2-5 create natural running lanes in a record setting day for its backs.
Both unit’s strengths were in the trenches. We knew this would be a physical football game and opportunities to stretch the field could be limited. Looking back in hindsight, we could not have been more correct.
Georgia dared the Cats to lean on Stephen Johnson’s ability to pass and loaded up the box to attempt to hinder UK’s power run attack anchored by its proficient Wildcat formation.
To start, Gran wanted to try to attempt to spread out Georgia’s linebackers by calling outside zone looks (RPO H Bublle and 4 Zone Read) and a rollout pass but went 3-and-out. UK remained versatile on its looks the second drive. But once it was forced to pass, the drive stalled.
UK’s third drive yielded its first points as the Cats rolled right down the field. Three of the Cat’s five plays that drive went for 12+ yards and another accounted for a score. Gran dialed up all slants for only the second time this year, called a nice double reverse wrinkle out of the Wildcat, and continued to follow the gameplan of spreading out UGA with zone run schemes and RPOs.
As discussed before, UK’s Wildcat is much more of a complete package than what it was when UK first unrolled it. Before where it might’ve been exclusively a short-yard power set, it is now the focal-point of its ground game. Since the bye-week, UK has not run an inside dive that hasn’t been out of the Wildcat (a play that produced 5.48 ypc); it has all been out of the Wildcat. During the first month and a half of this season, Wildcat dives averaged 3.4 ypc; that is now 4.9. UK not only is more comfortable running this set in any situation, but its backs have also figured out how to bust big gains out of it.
Gran has implemented more motion and less “straight forwardness” to this set by adding sweeps, zones, powers, and counters plus is reverse pass plays. Brett Musberger and Jesse Palmer even hinted on the broadcast that Gran has some plays were the Wildcat back actually might be a passer in the coming games.
On its next scoring drive, UK continued the same M.O. spreading out the Dawgs. Despite early success slashing UGA, UK really struggled to move the ball in the air. Johnson was 0-4 passing on third downs in the first half. As far as the individual pass plays went, they were jailbreak screens, shallow drives, and floods. I was only able to tell that one play was a brand new look that UK hadn’t run previously in the first half. Everything else had been on tape prior. At the break, Johnson had only completed five passes for just 54 yards, but the Cats were up 14-13.
We all know this by now, but the 3Q was full of missed opportunities. The Cats started by being given a gift fumble deep into UGA territory only to leave empty-handed after a holding call on a made field goal pushed them back out of McGinnis’s kicking range. On that drive, UK ran three zone reads sticking to the original gameplan.
On the next drive, UK quickly sent out its Wildcat set for an extended period after a first down incompletion. The drive was fueled by a counter and a zone run out of the Wildcat that set up an inside dive TD by Benny Snell. It would be UK’s last touchdown of the night.
I hate to say this phrase as the program is desperately trying to change its culture and perception, but the next two drives were typical UK football; where you something good happens only for something horrific to follow immediately thereafter. First after hitting Juice Johnson wide open on a dig in the middle of the field for a first down and 20 yard gain, the Cats coughed it up at midfield. The very next offensive snap, Johnson was intercepted on a deep post after his perfect pass hit off Jeff Badet’s hands and shoulder pads and fell into the hands of the trailing UGA DB. If caught, he would have most likely scored and have given UK a comfortable margin. This was the exact same play UK called earlier in the year against NM St. Let’s relive what I call 83 Z Deep Post.
From that point on, it was a slow bleed for this UK team. Despite being up five at home entering the 4Q, UK’s grasp on the game was tenuous. After starting its first drive of the quarter with a three-and-out, it was given another present with a Sonny Michele fumble in UGA land. But the Cats once again were forced to punt after three plays.
Georgia scored on the next drive and added a 2-point conversion. Kentucky trailed 24-21 the last time it got the ball with 9:12 left in the ball game. Over the past few week, this is where the Cats iced ball games. Heavy use of the Wildcat and force feeding Benny Snell had worked thus far. So, Gran wanted to keep pressing this look.
After a tough third-down sideline throw to Dorian Baker on a go-route, UK’s offense ran nine-straight plays out of the Wildcat in an attempt to grind out another hard fought game. Of those nine plays, three were inside zone counters, two were power runs to the right, two were inside dives, one was an outside zone counter, and one was an outside zone. Gran threw different runs at this UGA D to keep them on edge. Snell put the team on his back and it appear the Cats would find a way to win it. After his initial surge was stopped, Benny propelled himself forward three yards earning a crucial third down. At that moment, CWS felt victory was Kentucky’s.
But once the Cats found themselves with a goal-to-go situation, the play calls didn’t change. On first and second downs, the Wildcat was called and netted three yards. Mark Stoops even seemed to want to pass once UK was inside the 10. The clock was rolling most of the drive, but now the Cats were in a do-or-die 3rd-and-goal and had to pass. Kentucky had seven yards between them and pay dirt.
Now, this play call has received a fair bit of criticism. While I get wanting to isolated who you feel might be your best playmaker on a goal line fade yields a favorable result, history tells us jump ball fades typically favor the defense. Not only does the ball have to be thrown with excellent timing in a place where only the wideout can catch it in a tight enclosed area, the passer and his receiver have to be on the same page. If the QB wants to slightly under throw the ball, throw a back-shoulder fade, lead his man to the corner, or throw a true jump ball all must be determined ahead of time…and the throw has to be perfect; unless Julio Jones, AJ Green, or Alshon Jeffery are out alone on the sideline.
The throw was not perfect. It was slightly under thrown, something Johnson has continuously done on fades and go routes, and it fell incomplete forcing the Cats to kick a field goal.
Personally, I find goal line fades to be lazy playcalls that is most likely to fail. Though the popular phrase “50/50″ ball often gets thrown around (no pun intended) often when describing this, the advantage is with the defense in terms of success rate. Throughout the game, UK had been calling shallow-dig concepts (my favorite passing concept I should add) and had past success on floods, specially crosses in intermediate situations. But, they chose to isolate a player with a history of dropping the ball. Oh well, sometimes thats how the cookie crumbles. UK’s final 14-play 68-yard drive bled 6:25 off the clock. The final field goal wasn’t enough to hold off the Dawgs or force overtime; UK fell 27-24.
UK’s ten-play share was the lowest of the season. Meaning, it preferred to keep calling a variety of plays instead of sticking with looks that worked. This may have been a result of lack of prolonged scoring drives and those 3Q turnovers as the Cats ran its least number of plays since the ‘Bama game. The ten-play share was Wildcat Inside Zone (7), Wildcat Dive (4), RPO H Bubble (4), 4 Zone Read (3), 5 Zone Read (3), Shallow +Dig/”Bobcat” concepts (3), Wildcat Outside Zone (3), RPO Double Screen (3), Wildcat Power (2), and Wildcat Counter (2). Still, the Wildcat totaled nearly a third of Kentucky’s playcalls.