Yes, Saturday night stung. Some might want to move on and put that putrid performance in the rear-view mirror. Others are already counting down the days until Big Blue Madness; but not me.
Losses are humbling. They can drive you mad. But, they can also spark positive change. So after one of the biggest black eyes Big Blue has suffered to open a season, UK has to take a long, hard look at themselves.
A big storyline heading into Week 1 was how UK’s offense would look with new OC Eddie Gran. After sputtering to end the season last year, UK really needed to make a statement against an insurgent So. Miss team looking to snap its 13-game losing streak to SEC opponents.
It did early on…but didn’t when it mattered most. The reoccurring theme of failing to execute in crunch time once again played a huge part in UK’s 44-35 loss. So what went wrong?
After rewatching the game and doing some film analysis, UK’s offensive plan to start the game looked pretty straight forward on paper: Get Barker in a rhythm early with easy throws, lull the So. Miss secondary, and take a strike when an opportunity presented itself all the while keeping the defense off balance with a heavy doss of Run-Pass Options (RPOs).
The first big play was off a “Double Post” concept to Tavin Richardson, where he found himself behind the safties and holding inside position. UK ran a similar design on Garrett Johnson’s 53-yard score that gave UK 28-7 lead late in the 2Q. I talked about this concept here.
UK’s first touchdown of 2016 was a long one…and by golly, it came off a screen pass. At Lexington Catholic, we had this exact play design, which we dubbed “Dynavoy”. Basically like RPOs, this play has two different plays going on at the same time.
But UK’s favorite concept on Saturday was a RPO with an H Bubble Screen. This play hinges on a strong run game and to play on a defense’s aggressiveness. This scheme made up 16% of Kentucky’s total play calls. Plus, UK ran either a zone outside run or a H screen an additional six times mostly attacking the left and had three additional RPO plays from what I was able to discern. I talk a little about it here.
UK ran 36 first half plays; Barker was 11-19 287 yards with 4 TDs. Boom Williams totaled 75 yards on eight carries. JoJo Kemp added 7 yards on five carries with a TD. The Cats were 3/7 on third down conversions.
So what caused everything to come to a grinding halt in the second half? In my opinion, it was more on the Cats rather than what USM was doing defensively, but they did do things that caused key disruptions.
UK’s playcalling did not change and Gran often went back to concepts that worked earlier in the game. But as we know, Kentucky couldn’t find much rhythm.
Barker fumbled only three plays into the second half after he was sacked by Dylan Bradley deep inside USM territory. By the looks of it, it was the SAME call where Johnson was able to score his first TD. You know, the one where Barker showed his improved footwork after outmaneuvering an untouched rusher as he rolled to his left before finding his man. From that point on, UK only mustered two first downs.
The Cats ran 14 second half plays, 31 less than their opponent. Barker was 4-5 for 36 yards with three TOs in that span. Boom only totaled 20 yards on four additional carries ending with 95 on the night. UK only had two opportunities to convert a third down in the second half neither of which was successful.
Without sustaining drives, UK’s defense was forced to stay on the field the majority of the second half, which yielded tired legs and a subpar effort against USM’s ground game.
USM still sat mostly back in Cover 2 or Cover 3, but their blitzes finally started to land. UK was unable to overcome any of the four second half sacks by USM. The first forced a fumble, the second came on a third and long, the third came after the Cats were marching into scoring position and killed the drive, and the fourth essentially ended the game with another Barker fumble.
Gran called 10 plays more than once, a sure sign he was confident in his game plan. Those 10 plays accounted for over half of the calls for the night. He was just waiting for one of his athletes to bust one, but none doing.
But moving forward, this team has to maintain drives. Converting third downs, being more disciplined, and sustain double-digit play series. It was a double-edged sword the offense had three two-play TD drives.
The game against Florida won’t last past the 1Q if this continues. I’m already worried how empty CWS will be in two weeks, but UK has a chance to respond as they’ve played the Gators well the past two years. UMass kept things interesting well into the 4Q this past weekend against UF.
Like John Wooden once said, “You can learn a lot about victories, but you can learn even more about yourself from your defeats.” Will we learn something new about this crop of Cats or will we continue to see the same old thing?