Almost a week later, part of me still cannot believe it. But at after an up-and-down start to his head coaching career at Kentucky, Mark Stoops finally has his signature win. Despite all the frivolous claims coining each passing week “The Biggest Game of the Mark Stoops Era”, Saturday’s triumph over arch-rival Louisville certainly cemented itself as that.
Where in year’s past his teams would falter, Stoops’ team has shown poise and concentration down the stretch. They have a will to win. And, most importantly, they have an identity.
As the team improved, so did Stephen Johnson’s poise and leadership. Once given a few games to marinate, Kentucky’s offense is extremely potent.
OC Eddie Gran now has a decent sample size to know his QB’s in-game strengths and plays he is comfortable running. Let’s see the playcalling of college football’s “biggest upset of the year” *Note UK was the largest betting underdog to win a game this year by a few Las Vegas sports books
We have all seen the eye-popping numbers and how the Cats surpassed many of the Louisville defense’s averages. Still, it is remarkable the Cats eclipsed 200 ground yards and had its best day throwing the football this season against the Cardinals’ statistically sturdy squad.
Looking at the script, it was clear Gran wanted to maintain ball control and rack up a high time of possession; but he wanted to test Louisville’s battered and less-than-one-hundred-percent DBs. The plan was to run the zone stuff (RPOs, zone reads, outside zones) spreading out the Cardinal defense in the process with multi WR sets. Ample Wildcat, per usual, was also part of the gameplan; 22.7% of the Cats plays came out of that formation. In the passing game, Gran recalled previous plays that UK has had success on the season in certain situations. He attacked the sidelines on short to midrange throws and the middle on intermediate to deep throws. Besides a few drops, massive success was had.
The first play from scrimmage was a double post with a jet sweep fake. While the play might be new, we have seen UK have some success on deep passes with this concept. Having the “home-run” threat early in this game allowed Gran to open up his playbook. This wasn’t UK’s only big’un of the afternoon.
Gran preceded to call plays that reflected what I said a couple of paragraphs ago, but had some unique gems on the third drive. After a 3rd-and-4 conversion, UK finally dialed up a true Wildcat pass play. Teased since the Miss St. game, a Wildcat back finally threw a downfield pass. Though it was incomplete, it reiterated Gran wanted to take shots. After all, Louisville showed a tendency to fall for trick plays over the course of the season. A few plays later, UK ran a “Herb” pass on 3rd-and-10; “Herb” is a glorified toss where the QB delivers the ball via swing pass to the halfback. Two zone plays later (one out of the Wildcat, the other on a zone read), UK found pay dirt. Here are the other interesting new looks Gran called Saturday.
With the game tied, UK had an opportunity to ice the game late in the 4Q, but fumbled the ball away near midfield. After its final TD to Dorian Baker, UK only averaged 2.27 yard/attempt on runs not by Johnson. But, said QB found a way to put this team in position to kick a game winning FG after a fortuitous fumble by Lamar Jackson under the 2-minute mark inside UK’s ten yard line.
Here’s the game winning drive.
Entering the game, UK ranked 90th in the country in third down conversion percentage with a paltry 37%. Saturday, Kentucky converter ten of its 18 attempts. Some of UK’s best plays were on third down. This is where a comfortable QB can show his true colors. Johnson came to play, ladies and gentlemen.
Though he started shaky this season, Johnson finished first in the SEC in yards/completion, 14.78, good for 8th nationally. Ever since the bye week, this team has itched to take shots.
Pro Football Focus, the football analytics site I love to plug, graded the game. This was the first UK game fully graded since the nightmare Florida matchup. PFF’s top offensive grades for UK were LG Nick Haynes 82.5, QB Stephen Johnson 81.1, WR Garrett Johnson 79.8, RB Boom Williams 72.9, and WR Ryan Timmons 72.1. Defensively, SS Mike Edwards 80.5, DE Alvonte Bell 74.8, LB Josh Allen 73.2, LB Jordan Jones 75.9, and Naquez Pringle 73.0 lead the way. FYI the “Heisman” graded 77.9. *LINK
The Ten-Play Script was 5 Zone Read (9), Wildcat Inside Zone (5), 4 Zone Read (5), Wildcat Dive (4), RPO X/Z Screen (3), Wildcat Counter (3), H Bubble (3), Wildcat Outside Zone (3), and —four pass plays were run twice; “Divide”, “Twerk”, “Slice”, Clearout H Cross. The Ten-Play share was 50.6%, one of the lowest of the year. But Gran called a variety of looks and kept Louisville on their heels. Clearly, I’m not complaining about the results.
Kentucky gave Bobby Petrino his first loss to the Cats as a Louisville Head Coach and took control of the series record 15-14. This was UK’s first road win against a ranked foe since winning at Louisville in 2002. The Cats were label an “underdog” in all but three games this year by ESPN’s Football Power Index; shows what the “Worldwide Leader”, knows.
Stoops and Co. did one helluva job preparing this team for the ‘Cards. They fought all the way through and finally have a win to stick their chests out over. This is the first seven win season in seven years. It feels the Cats might be an interesting team moving forward. Johnson appears to now be the guy at QB no matter what. The former College of the Desert star accounted for over 70% of the Cats’ total yards from scrimmage Saturday and has never looked better. Though UK loses Toth, its line remains relatively in tact with its two stellar backs and loaded cupboard of wide receivers. The defense returns most of this players including its young core of Jones, Allen, Baity, and Westry. This could be a sneaky good team next season, but I digress.
We now wait to see what bowl game we get to play in. I will have a “Season in Review” piece much like the Bye Week Breakdown in the coming days.
Go Big Blue