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Playcalling Review: New Mexico State Edition

Finally, BBN went to bed in a decent mood this football season. Though the day began with doom and gloom, UK was able to outlast the pesky Aggies of New Mexico State on a soggy Saturday 62-42.

On a day that Bobby Petrino and his Dirty Birds captured one of the most impressive victories Louisville has ever seen, UK conversely was faced with a must-win-big scenario against a Sun Belt team; poetic justice to some, cruel fate to others.

After allowing opponents to go on a 79-7 run since the first half of the Southern Mississippi game, Kentucky desperately needed to get its season on track with a decisive win.

Though the defense continued to struggle tacking, covering in zone, and getting pressure on the QB, the offense had one of its best days in a long time. Gran and Co. gained the second most yards in school history and put up 60-plus points for the first time in six seasons. UK’s plan was simple: attack the edges of the New Mexico State D via off-tackle runs and zone reads with RPO wrinkles to keep the defense honest. The Cats are bigger, stronger, faster than the Aggies. Plus with the wet conditions, it was obvious UK wanted to keep the ball on the ground and find its athletes space to work.

The plan, as the last two games, wanted to get Barker in a rhythm with easy reads and completions with RPOs. But, things sometimes don’t go accordingly. On the second play of the game, a Barker keeper resulted in the sophomore QB hurting his back. Barker’s day ended after the next play when his sailed pass resulting in an interception, his fifth thus far in 2016. At that point, 14 of UK’s last 15 drives with Barker included either a sack, a fumble, or an interception. So for the second time in just as many games, Kentucky called on its backup Stephen Johnson.

Though he had a rocky start guiding the offense, Johnson quickly found his footing. Despite the early deficit, Gran stuck to his simple plan and the Cats were able to produce manageable yard and distance situations and break a number of big plays. Gran only called “traditional” passes (where there was no read and the QB did a straight drop) a handful of times predominantly after yards were lost on first down or on third and long.

Like the past two games, RPOs were a big part of the offense. Over 20% of the plays were RPOs. Next, QB zone reads and outside zone runs composed the biggest remaining shares of the play calling with clips of 18% and 15%, respectively. The Cats called inside dives 10% of the time along with five designed screens. Only one drop-back pass play was called more than once from what I was able to discern, an H-stick concept.

UK exited Saturday with a couple of 100-yard rushers after failing to produce one in its first two contests. Boom Williams and Benny Snell were the stars of the afternoon, but it was the poised quarterbacking of backup Stephen Johnson that gave UK’s offense the much needed versatility it needed to keep NM St. off balance. Johnson’s extra mobility, especially on zone reads, forces the end man on the line of scrimmage to stay honest and respect his ability to run the ball. I go into the importance of this here. Having that extra threat to run each snap will force defenders to make quick decisions and put them in tough spots.

If you don’t believe me, take a gander at what Lamar Jackson is doing at Louisville. Just this weekend, Jackson totaled 145 rushing yards and 4 TDs on his 14 designed runs as opposed to his 9 yards on his two scrambles. But, that’s enough about the Red Birds; back to the Cats.

CJ Conrad was also a big success on Saturday. Though mostly used as a blocker the first two games, Gran unleashed his young tight end in a number of ways. Conrad scored first on a waggle, then on a RPO Y stick, before finally getting the turkey with a middle screen. I talk about UK’s waggle concept here. Before today, nearly 40% of UK’s sets didn’t use a TE. On Saturday, UK used TE-less sets for only six plays. With the extra emphasis to take the air out of the ball, deploying Y-heavy sets will be more of the norm. Though the opponent was subpar, Conrad will get post season accolades if he is used this effectively and efficiently. Let’s hope it wasn’t another one game phenomenon.

Besides UK’s waggle concept, other play actions will be a big part in a creating favorable situations for Johnson to air it out. He is far from a polished passer in the pocket. So Gran will look to play to his strengths and dare opposing defenses to key on him in the run game. UK already took advantage of such last week against Florida and found a few more big plays based off play action this week. Here, I diagram a PA concept that resulted in the Cats deepest downfield pass of the afternoon. Since UK is likely to keep leaning heavily on outside zones and read options, having a healthy play action package is essential to keep teams from blitzing or being over-aggressive defending UK’s ground game.

Back issues are nothing to rush back from. Even if fully healed, an awkward fall or twist can easily cause an old injury to flare up. Just look at Tony Romo and his incessant fight with back problems. At this point, I expect Johnson to be UK’s starter next week. I expect Gran to keep doing what he’s been doing: try to keep his offense ahead of the chains and limit obvious passing situations all the while keeping the defense guessing.  Don’t expect complex many passing schemes.

Will Muschamp will be looking for a bounce back win after his squad was thumped by Georgia Tech and its wing-T this weekend. Another “defensive guy”, Muschamp will look to clamp down UK’s run-spread attack and make things difficult on UK’s line with stunts, blitzes and shade looks. If the Cats want to win its third straight over the Gamecocks, it will need to continue to make plays in space with its RPOs and outside runs all the while keeping its D well rested on the sidelines. Johnson will need to complete downfield passes, however, or UK’s backs won’t find much room to run with South Carolina loading the box.

UK opens as a slight favorite. With a shaky defense, however, the game next week is an absolute toss up. It is a must-win if the Cats want to go bowling. *Thanks, Captain Obvious.

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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