Playcalling Analysis: Mississippi State Edition

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Playcalling Analysis: Mississippi State Edition

Photo: Andrew Bishop,

WOW! WOW! WOWIE! What a captivating ball game! Big gainers. Razzle Dazzle. Momentum shifting defensive touchdowns. Clutch plays. Saturday’s ball game had it all. Oh and more importantly, the Cats won.

I’m still riding high days later. Never in my life has UK won a game in such a fashion. Usually, the Cats are on the tragic side of those kinds of outcomes. But for the first time in a long time, Kentucky won a game as the clock expired in regulation.

With the latest “Biggest Game in the Mark Stoops Era” leaving the Cats in second place of the SEC East, UK’s bowl hopes are very, very much in play. Though this offense still has glaring weaknesses, they executed their gameplan quite well in their 40-38 exhilarating win over Miss. St. Time to look at how they did it.

If you took the time to read the Bye Week Breakdown, you know this offense has had a dramatic shift in style over the course of the last month. While beginning with more spread and four WR sets, this offense has leaned into building one of the top rushing attacks in the conference. They tougher, meaner, and way more physical than they were a mere four weeks ago.

UK ran the ball very well up the gut, a growing trend with increased use of the Wildcat and inside dives. Three-fourths of UK’s rushing yards came between the tackles. Despite being out-rushed by the Bulldogs, Saturday was UK’s second straight game topping 200 yards on the ground. It was very clear the week off helped this offense recharge, reevaluate, and recalibrate.

UK called more action than it has in weeks past with play fakes, rollouts, and trickeration; the offense hasn’t looked this explosive since the first half of the So. Miss game. Now why would they add these to their normal offense? Well, let’s go down the list.

Play fakes force defenders in zone coverage, especially line backers, to step up and respect the run often allowing TEs and slot receivers a split second to gain a step on their man. With UK’s recent success on the ground and a QB with shaky accuracy, play fakes make Johnson’s job easier. The quicker a receiver is open, the quicker the QB can throw, which puts more pressure on the defense and forces them out of their comfort zones. Rollouts force not only Dlineman to change their rush paths but also require those in zone coverage to mirror the QB’s movements. Though linebackers can be capable stationary zone defenders on normal drop backs, mobile QBs can take advantage of ‘backers who do not move well sideline to sideline both with their legs and in situations where LBs have to decide between squeezing the run threat or sticking with their man in coverage. Though UK did these things in past games, they were more sporadic. Against Miss St, they were more calculated and a bigger part of the game plan.

Despite those two bad fumbles, Stephen Johnson looked comfortable and confident with where he wanted to go with the ball. Though some of his passes sailed and were off target, the wayward throws didn’t affect his new-found aggressive mentality. Coming into the game, UK only had one pass play over 20 yards the last two weeks, good for second last in the country.  The Cats had six against the Bulldogs and should have had more. SJ missed CJ Conrad on a RPO Y Release (just like at ‘Bama) and later on an inside screen (much like the one against NM St. that went the distance). He also missed Dorian Baker on a drag route right before half time that would have surely resulted in a TD. But when his teammates needed precision and big plays, Johnson once again didn’t shy away and delivered. More on that later.

Though UK called some of its staple pass plays, I was very excited to see new wrinkles in a number of concepts. Instead of writing about them, let me show you.

As aforementioned, the use of the Wildcat formation is a major cog in this offense. Dives netted 115 while new power runs (where the backside guard pulls into the hole as a lead blocker) added an additional 15 yards. If you do the math, that’s nearly half of UK’s run production. Plays from this formation accounted for 24% of UK’s total plays. While it is easy to give credit to the backs getting the yards and TDs, it is remarkable at how this Oline unit has responded to playing physical over the past month. Trust me, transitioning from a mostly zone spread scheme to a downhill, man scheme is no easy task. KUDOS.

UK wasted zero time pulling out a new look. It doesn’t take a “Football Freddie” to know the Wildcat formation is designed for one thing and one things only, downhill runs between the tackles. Opposing defenses are starting to get wise of that, so Eddie Gran incorporated some trick plays to keep his foes on their toes. UK ran three different trick plays out of the Wildcat on Saturday.

Though UK appeared to have its rotation down, losing JoJo Kemp with a hand ailment allowed Boom Williams to receive touches in the 4Q (his first since the NM St Game).  It payed off big time as 80 of his 99 rush yards came in that period. Even though Benny Snell Jr. remains to be this team’s closer and designated grinder, Boom showed he is still the O’s homerun threat on the ground.

We all know how the game played out, so I don’t want to give another take on the near-meltdown and how it almost ended in “typical” Kentucky football fashion. But I do want to take you inside the final, game-clinching drive. With a little over a minute and all three timeouts, UK had to drive approximately 40 yards to get within kicker Austin MacGinnis’ range.

SJ played a hell of a game. Though I often give him crap and am highly critical of his passing,but he is becoming a pretty good QB. Though the Vandy game was a step back, Saturday Johnson was the steady hand this team needed in crunch time. Like the video mentions, the hardest throw he had to make was his last one…and it was delivered right on the money. It is a shame those two fumbles deterred from his passing performance. He is now 4-1 as a starter. This team will go as far as he is able to take them.

He often starts anxious. Its clear he can be nervous in the pocket or if his passing lanes are limiting his vision. This often causes errant throws. But he makes plenty of plays with his legs to put up with a missed throw or two. Saturday, UK was not afraid to call shots. I hope this is a trend moving forward. Not only to help the run game get a little extra cushion, but to also allow Johnson to get these talented Wildcat WRs involved downfield…which in turn will help the outcome. The two best metrics for determining the outcomes of games are Turnover Margin, which ironically UK has lost the past two games, and Explosive Plays (plays 20+ yards). Johnson will need to keep chucking to help this offense reach its potential.

Wildcat Dives (16), RPO H Bubble (5), 4 Zone Read (5), Wildcat Powers (3), Deep Curls (3), Curl + Flats (3), 5 Zone Read (3), Mesh Double Post (3), H Cross (3), and Convoy screens (3) consisted the highest percentage of playcalling. The ten-play share was 59.4%, an average number compared to the other play shares this season.

As discussed in the Bye Week Breakdown, third downs have been a hinderance all season. Ranking 105th in conversion percentage (34.2%)  is not something to wear on your sleeve. Coming into the game, the Cats averaged 7.9 yards to gain on third downs (Only 1/5 were converted of that length). On Saturday, UK averaged 6.4 yard to gain and converted 40% of their attempts; only two conversions were over six yards. With Gran going back to some previous pass concepts to further grow his former JUCO QB’s moxie in the pocket, improvement should continue to be made. UK’s best formula for success, however, is to make their average yard to gain 5 yards or less. UK had 20 conversions on first or second down, for the record.

Mark Stoops and Co. have two winnable games ahead of them. Old news, but the Cats must win at least one of them for a likely bowl birth. Missouri lost this past weekend to Middle Tennessee State and look vulnerable. But after an embarrassing showing, they will look to protect their house and get their season back on track. As for Georgia, the last time UK beat the Dawgs in CWS they started a freshman QB; just like this year. Vandy beat them, and UK beat Vandy. By rule of the transitive property, UK can theoretically get it done.

The “almighty” Football Power Index by ESPN forecasted the Cats as underdogs the past two weeks, but that didn’t stop the Cats from pulling out Ws. The same is true for the next couple of weeks. UK enters this week’s matchup with only a 25% chance to beat the Tigers by the FPI; it also favors UGA giving the Cats only a 34.1% chance to be victorious. But again, do not put a whole lot of trust into this fledgling metric.

Enjoy this one. Now, onto Columbia.

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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