An interesting thing happened to Kentucky's football team on the way to a great season -- they forgot how to play offense.
That's passing strange, because up until the last 3 games, the Wildcats knew how to play offense pretty well. But starting with the Mississippi State game, something happened that has not yet un-happened. André Woodson went from the toast of the town and a Heisman Trophy candidate to a pretty ordinary SEC quarterback. The result of that transformation has been an offense that struggles to move the ball, and struggles to score at their opponent's end of the field.
Earlier in the year, Andé Woodson was throwing precision passes, dissecting offenses with the efficiency of a surgeon who has performed the same operation many times. Suddenly, Woodson's precision now looks very ordinary at best.
The failure of Kentucky to move the ball through the air makes it harder for the rest of their offense to click. The result has been predictable, and Kentucky's offensive efficiency is no longer a thing to be feared in the SEC. Three-and-outs are becoming common, and the swagger that the Wildcats had earlier in the year has been replaced by a kind of tenuous semi-confidence -- something like, "There is nothing really wrong -- we'll get it back. No worries." When does this sort of casual assurance metastasize into denial? I would argue Woodson and the offense have now reached and passed that point.
Kentucky's offense is broken, and André Woodson is the primary reason why. His completion percentage is dropping, as you would expect for a quarterback playing poorly, but there are more troubling signs -- Woodson is not hitting receivers in stride anymore, nor for that matter, even around the numbers. He is throwing high, low, and wide, making yards after the catch that were once a hallmark of Kentucky's wide receiving corps difficult to come by. Want specifics? Yesterday, Woodson left at least two and arguably three touchdowns on the table by overthrowing his receivers -- once to Keenan Burton, once to Dickie Lyons, and once to Jacob Tamme. In addition, he underthrew Johnson once where he had nothing but open field in front of him, forcing Johnson to make a diving catch. He overthrew Little in the middle of the field, forcing Little to make an incredible leaping catch that denied any opportunity for yardage after the play.
The troubling thing is, Woodson hasn't done this kind of thing all year until very recently. How many balls has he thrown deep to receivers hitting them in stride, or right in the numbers? What has changed? I think I know.
Woodson looks to be trying to think his way through a football game. Every possession, you can almost see the wheels turning in his head, planning every move. Now, while that may seem laudable for a quarterback, in reality it is a trap. That much cognition causes your reactions to be a split-second slow, and a tiny bit conservative. The result has been Woodson forced to throw a bit harder or a bit more to the safe side. This disproportionately affects the long pass and timing routes, as tiny hesitations make for larger errors the longer the pass is. In other words, instead of playing instinctive football, Woodson is trying to make cognitive judgments where there is simply no time for them. That's why he is holding the ball too long in the pocket. That's why he gets sacked when he should throw the ball away. That's why he is forced to put more zip on balls that result in throws that are wide of the mark.
As a former quarterback myself in high school, I know how this kind of thing can snowball. Suddenly, every possession seems so important that the tiniest error in judgment is life-or-death. Pressure begins to multiply, inducing you to think more and react less. A snowball begins rolling downhill, and before long it is the size of a house with a lot of momentum. Pretty soon, you are the snowball, not a football player.
I have no advice for André to escape this self-defeating malaise. It happens to all of us at some point or another. Some of us find a way through, and some simply don't. Golfers are particularly subject to this brain damage, and it has ruined many a promising career. For most football players, it takes care of itself in the off season. The problem is, André has no more off seasons -- if he doesn't figure this out next week, he never will as a Kentucky player.
The UK defense played its best game of the season yesterday, in my opinion. The Cats held the Dawgs to 283 yards of net offense, forced 4 turnovers (no "dropped balls" -- UK stripped the ball or made amazing interceptions in every case). Kentucky didn't dominate Georgia defensively, but the defense gave the kind of effort that wins football games, which makes it all the more frustrating that special teams and the offense let their outstanding effort go for naught.
Tim Mastay had a horrible day kicking the football, and it led to at least one Georgia touchdown. Kentucky's failure to cover the opening kickoff should have resulted in another, but the Cats' defense stepped up and took the ball away. A missed blocking assignment resulted in the Georgia nose tackle running straight up the middle and blocking a Mastay punt so thoroughly that he could have blocked it just as well if he had to run 10 more yards. That is utterly unacceptable, and led directly to a Bulldog touchdown.
Kentucky lost this game because of Woodson and the special teams. Those are the places where the blame goes, and nowhere else -- if the UK offense doesn't execute, they cannot win. Kentucky's special teams have been solid all year long. Maybe they had an off game, but that needs attending. The good news is, the Cats know what and where the problems are that need to be fixed. The bad news? UK lost an eminently winnable game and threw their best defensive effort of the year into the dust bin.