Ever since blowing a 24-7 home lead to archrival Louisville last fall, Mark Stoops and Co. started to feel the pressure to produce. Despite millions of dollars rejuvenating facilities and Commonwealth Stadium, back-to-back 5-7 campaigns stagnated the fan base’s enthusiasm and many were ready to give up on the team.
A disastrous start to the season didn’t help matters. Surrendering its halftime lead to Southern Mississippi in the opener and failing to show up in Gainesville put Stoops squarely on the hot seat. After the first quarter of the season, rumors swirled and plagued the program about Stoops’ future; many called for a mid-season dismissal if things didn’t turn around quick.
But to his credit, he got his team back on track despite the distractions. Once Stoops called the plays on defense, the unit took on his personality. Plus with the emergence of Benny Snell and the depth of the Oline, this team became more “blue collar” by the day. As the season progress, the team finally settled on an identity; something Stoops has been yearning for since he arrived in Lexington. This team learned how to be physical and hard-nosed.
With Drew Barker soon sidelined with a back injury, first year UK OC Eddie Gran had to rework Kentucky’s offense on the fly around JUCO Stephen Johnson. The beginning was rocky and the stats weren’t pretty, but the games were being won. Gran soon grew to trust his young QB more and more.
Exiting the bye week, you could tell there was a different feel about the Cats. They had swagger. They were more aggressive. They were playing for something. Flash forward to today. All is well. There is a pep in our step. BBN currently has a product of which it can be proud. Such a completely different outlook than the toxic Saturday afternoon leading up to the SCar. game.
In a do or die season, Mark Stoops and Co. delivered. The Cats will be playing in their biggest bowl matchup since 1998. Fitting this season will be remembered years from now for the Louisville game, the very foe that started to put the fire to the Lazy Boy. Besting Bobby Petrino. On the road. Against their Heisman quarterback. What a cherry to top of our sundae of Caturdays. Let’s see how it was done.
At the halfway point, UK ranked in the nation’s top half in only four statistical categories. Most of its major stats were nestled comfortably in the back third of college teams. But, noticeable progress was being made heading into the bye on both sides of the ball. Stoops worked on shrinking its yard/play allowed and on generating turnovers. Gran honed in on making his wildcat set more versatile and stretching the field more in the passing game. Here is where UK stands now statistically (Note the improvement/regression per category):
That’s a lot of green. Granted in many areas, there was no where to go but up. Kentucky sat in the bottom 20 in nearly a dozen stat categories at the bye. This team manned up. In eight categories, UK made a 30-spot statistical jump. Kentucky doubled its number of categories that rank in the top half of college teams.
For me, the most important gain was in offensive yards/play. Though the average gain was small, remember, this is a game of inches. UK’s offense was able to sustain more drives and milk more clock because of the improvement in explosive plays. The run game became more versatile and more shots were taking in the air. Hence, UK scored more points. That domino effect helped mold the finished potent product that will play in Jacksonville.
But defensively, not a lot of progression was made statistically. Many areas remained stagnant and others had massive drop offs. But with an offense that could now put up some points, pressure was taken off the defense and it allowed them to just go play. Losing key reserves to injury tested the unit’s durability and resolve. Living the “bend don’t break” mentality, this defense on average yielded a hefty chunk of yards. UK’s rush defense was the main culprit as most teams were able to run around and through UK’s battered front seven. This could potentially be a huge Achilles heel against Georgia Tech’s Wing-T triple option offense.
At the break, this offense had started to see the uptick on the ground game. But as you can read from the “Bye Week Breakdown” excerpt below, the passing game left something to be desired.
Despite this, UK’s run game has been laudable. We knew Boom and JoJo were talents. But with the emergence of Freshman Benny Snell, the backs have solidified themselves to be the deepest position group . So there’s no surprise that the majority of the calls have been run plays, especially after the NM St game. UK’s pro-spread has morphed into a power-run driven ball-control offense.
Though the stats may portray them as subpar, this group does some things very well. UK’s guards have produced a great average yards/carry on inside dives. Jon Toth also aids in that effort. He continues to be the “Big Toe” of the O-line. With Cole Mossier out, Landen Young has been average in pass protection, but he has shown to be a excellent run blocker. Left outside zones are staples in UK’s favorite concepts like its RPO packages and QB zone reads. UK’s offensive line has been the foundation of these team. Of course when you set out to run the ball early and often, you won’t get very far without five dependable hog mollies up front paving the way.
From then on, Gran built on that foundation. You’ll see later how UK was able to run a bevy of concepts exceptionally well on the ground. After the bye week passed, Oline Coach John Schlarman worked out a rotation to get nine guys involved. Run blocking takes its toll and can wear down lineman on both sides of the ball. But with the rotation, Kentucky was able to remain relatively fresh and more capable of sustaining meaningful drives.
If any unit exceeded preseason expectations, its these guys. I mean, they did force TWO 1,000 yard backs. Plus with a good showing, they will earn the honor of setting a school rushing record for yards in a season. This turnaround does not happen without them. Cole, Landon, Nick, Logan, Jon, Bunchy, Kyle, and George kicked ass this season. And, they were able to do it in a variety of ways.
Nick Haynes joined Benny Snell Jr, 1st Team All America, on Pro Football Focus’ 2nd Team-All SEC. (BTW Benny was their top-graded freshman for the conference). Jon Toth earned AP 1st Team All-SEC and Guard Logan Stenberg was selected to the SEC All-Freshman.
What can I say about Stephen Johnson that hasn’t already been said. No one dreamed the former College of the Desert product to be the savior of the program. To be the steady hand. To be the leader. To be the first quarterback since Andre Woodson to win seven games in a season; even if two of them required him coming off the bench. The kid is a competitor.
Though he has skill set limitations, he found out to do enough things well to keep this team in the thick of it. He took his bumps and bruises and his fair share of criticism along the way, but Johnson remained constant. He did turn it over some, but Johnson made good decisions with the ball. Even though his accuracy on some afternoons wasn’t the best, he was the calming force the unit needed to thrive. Johnson’s best football came against team’s known for knocking Kentucky around the past few years. He will be the guy moving forward. No ifs, ands, or buts.
But as every good running back needs a complimentary offensive line, every QB needs his receiver. Over the past few season, a few individuals had been battling for the moniker of “big play wide receiver”. After this season, we know who this staff thinks deserves that title, Jeff Badet. Badet’s speed and playmaking ability make him a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. From very early, Gran tried to find ways to get him involved. Screens, jets, shots, and reverses have all been called for him over the course of this campaign. In fact, Badet finished in the top 5 in yards/catch.
As we all know, however, Badet left many plays on the field with drops. Though he wasn’t the only one, Badet was often singled out for them due to the fact his targets were often one:one bombs for the whole stadium to see. Despite the missed connections, he still finished with that impressive clip.
The receivers performed much better than a season ago, but many drives stalled because of dropped passes. Timmons graduates, and plenty more will be upperclassmen. WR Coach Lamar Dawson with another offseason to school this group could present a fair cupboard of weapons. With the depth to threaten loss of playing time, mistakes should continue to shrink for fear of losing one’s starting spot. Baker, Johnson, Walker, Richardson, Bone, Ross, and all the underclassmen will continue to improve as they keep in their routine with their new quarterback.
When Mark Stoops took back the reigns on his defense after the first two games, there was a noticeable uptick from his player’s on field tenacity and effort. Even though setbacks and injuries plateaued the unit’s development over the second half of the season, the defense did the best they could to keep the team in games.
Jordan Jones became the leader of this defense. The sophomore weak side linebacker drove his peers on and off the field to commit to winning. Despite the preseason love, the secondary took its bumps and bruises and looked rather ordinary over the course of the season. When running man coverages, UK’s big corner’s and headhunting safeties played comfortable and aggressive, but when zone coverages where called, they became flat footed and vulnerable. They made enough plays over the course of the season, so I won’t give this D a lot of hate. After all, they bring back a whole lot of talent for 2017.
Southern Mississippi: 50 Snaps: 10-Play Share 54%
RPO H Bubble, 5 Zone, Deep Double Post, All Seems, “Dynavoy”, RPO Y Stick/Release, Power 5, Clearout Shovel, PA Flood Left, 2 Dive
Florida: 48 Snaps: 10-Play Share 56%
4 Zone, 3 Dive, QB Outside Power, X Shallow, “Dynavoy”, Curl + Flats, Rub, RPO H Bubble, 4 Zone Read, Wildcat Dive
New Mexico State: 68 Snaps: 10-Play Share 67.4%
RPO X/Z Screen, 5 Zone Read, RPO H Bubble, 4 Zone Read, Zone 5, 2 Dive, 4 Zone, RPO Y Release, 85 Waggle, 3 Dive
South Carolina: 67 Snaps: 10-Play Share 59.7%
RPO H Bubble, 2 Dive, 3 Dive, 00 Trap, Power 5, 01 Trap, Power 4, Curl + Flats, Zone 5, H Cross
Alabama: 55 Snaps: 10-Play Share 61.8%
Wildcat Dive (2/3), 2 Dive, 3 Dive, Rub, 5 Zone Read, All Verts, Curl + Flats, RPO X/Z Screen, “Divide”, RPO H Bubble
Vanderbilt: 75 Snaps: 10-Play Share 54.6%
Wildcat Dive (2/3), RPO H Bubble, 4 Zone Read, 3 Dive, Curl + Flats, RPO Y Stick/Release, Jet Sweep, 85 Waggle, 5 Zone Read, Flood
Mississippi State: 79 Snaps: 10-Play Share 59.4%
Wildcat Dives, RPO H Bubble, 4 Zone Read, Wildcat Powers, Deep Curls, Curl + Flats, 5 Zone Read, Mesh Double Post, H Cross, Convoy
Missouri: 85 Snaps: 10-Play Share 64.7%
Wildcat Dives, RPO X/Z Screen, RPO H Bubble, Wildcat Power, RPO Double Bubble, 4 Zone Read, 5 Zone Read, Zone 5, Wildcat Zone, 80 Slice
Georgia: 62 Snaps: 10-Play Share 54.84%
Wildcat Inside Zone, Wildcat Dive, RPO H Bubble, 4 Zone Read, 5 Zone Read, Drive/Shallows, Wildcat Outside Zone, RPO Double Screen, Wildcat Power, Wildcat Counter
Tennessee: 83 Snaps: 10-Play Share 54%
RPO H Bubble, 4 Zone Read, RPO X/Z Screen, Power Read Left, Wildcat Power, Wildcat Inside Zone, 5, Curl + Slant, Convoy Screens, 5 Zone Read, and “Slice”
Austin Peay: 53 Snaps: 10-Play Share 64%
Wildcat Counter, Wildcat Power, RPO H Bubble, 5 Zone Read, Wildcat Inside Zone, “Bobcat”, “Crush”, Wildcat Jet, Counter, Power 4
Louisville: 77 Snaps: 10-Play Share 50.6%
5 Zone Read, Wildcat Inside Zone, 4 Zone Read, Wildcat Dive, RPO X/Z Screen, Wildcat Counter, H Bubble, Wildcat Outside Zone , and —four pass plays were run twice; “Divide”, “Twerk”, “Slice”, Clearout H Cross
As you can probably tell, all of UK’s most efficient staples were run plays. Many involved pulling a guard; aka playing smashmouth football. Anchored by bigg’uns upfront, this offense opened up. But, the zone foundation also slashed defenses when appropriate.
Due to the small sample size, many pass patterns were left off that list. Instead of dissecting each play, I grouped common patterns into categories: Floods, Drive-Shallows, Vertical Offense, and Sideline-Hashes; each of these have a few concepts within them.
Floods: 7.07 yards/attempt. Floods call for a number of receivers to flow to the same side of the field. Speed and precise routes on the outside help these plays beat man; the spacing the and natural flow of the routes often help receivers find windows between some zones. Many play actions utilize floods. UK averaged more yards on these concepts off play action or when Johnson was allowed to leave the pocket. Four separate concepts compose this category: play action rollouts (10.23 y/a), true floods (6.18 y/a), rollouts (9.17 y/a), and crosses (4.18 y/a). Stephen Johnson struggled to hit intermediate crossers within the pocket consistently, but these patterns yielded a respectable clip.
Drive-Shallows: 6.46 yards/attempt. This category is a combo of a number of patterns and concepts, but they all look to attack the middle of the field. Some are designed to go short, others long. In fact, a few of those Jeff Badet TD drops came off drive concepts. This category breaks up into three concepts: Daggers and Strikes that attacks 10-20 yards downfield with a streak-dig combo (5.58 y/a), Drives that go after short and intermediate areas between the hashes by using post-digs or dig-drags(10.63 y/a), and Shallows that use horizontal routes and spacing to create separation from defenders (1.9 y/a). Without the deep drops and misfires on mesh and rub plays, these concepts would’ve produced massive numbers for UK. Drives really came on during the midpoint of the season.
Verticals: 12.34 yards/attempt. Verticals are all about attacking downfield. Despite the name, they entail much more than straight “Go-Routes”. They can be as simple as four streaks or sending one receiver on a deep path, but UK executed them well at times. Though Johnson might not have had the best arm strength, he made quite a number astounding throws on these patterns. Of course since the very nature of these plays is to rack up a whole lotta yards, their yards/attempt are naturally higher. This category has three concepts: Shots that have a combo of routes that set up one deep receiver (18 y/a), Verts and Seams (2.5 y/a), and Deep Posts (16.33 y/a). These are boom/bust plays so the completion rate wasn’t too high despite causing some of Kentucky’s most explosive pass plays.
Sidelines-Hashes: 5.13 yards/attempt. Much like how vertical concepts yield a high average, these are suppose to total modest ones. With the emphasis to control and sustain drives, Gran called pass plays to get moderate chunks of yards. This category is composed of concepts that attack the outside about 15 yards or less downfield. Curl+Flats (4.28 y/a), Smashes (3.5 y/a), Sticks+Twigs (6 y/a), and Bench-Divides made up these patterns (6.38 y/a). Often, opposing defenses had UK’s number when running man against these plays causing many broken plays and incompletions. These concepts were called a decent number of times on third and medium.
The pass plays above aren’t all the looks UK dialed up this season, but they are a good representation of all the concepts they tried to go back to as the year progressed. Naturally, many short concepts were called as Gran tried to find route combinations Johnson was comfortable throwing while “managing” the game. After all, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to always take shots downfield when you only need 4-7 yards. They honed in on what they needed for the most part, but obviously threw more bombs after the bye week.
Overall, I am very pleased the direction this team took this year. It would be crazy to argue against this notion; though some are saying this team left three possible wins on out there. No I am not one of them. As a person who thought this team would peak at five wins, I will not split hairs over the first seven-win season in seven seasons.
Though the defense was shorthanded and often showed its deficiencies, the offense finally delivered a product BBN could be proud of. Sure, it was the exact opposite of the “Air Raid”, but the ball was moved in a variety of ways across that end zone. The yardage output was UK’s best under Stoops as was the point totals.
So, there you have it. Hopefully, this will allow you to know a little bit more about the minutia behind UK’s rise out of irrelevance. I feel like I should stick an Easter egg or a little joke to those of you who made it this far….I guy walks into a bar, and says “Ouch”.