It's no mystery why Kentucky is struggling this season in football -- the offense is simply unable to offend anything. This is perhaps the most futile Kentucky offense since Bill Curry was trying to convert Tim Couch into an option-style quarterback.
For many years, Kentucky has been used to an exciting offense. When Hal Mumme ran the team, it was the wide-open "Air Raid" offense. When Rich Brooks was the coach, it was a West coast pro-style offense. Joker is looking to continue what Brooks did. His first year, with Mike Hartline and Randall Cobb, Kentucky's offense was very similar to what we saw under the best years of Brooks. The defense struggled, though, so Phillips went out and essentially replaced his defensive coordinator without actually doing so.
So how does Kentucky find itself at this pass, where their offense is among the worst in Division I? It looks, more than anything else, like a complete breakdown of the offensive system. In any offense, the ideal is to force the defense to do things it doesn't want to do. Most college defenses prefer to defend conventional offenses, because that's what most teams run.
Since Brooks came along, Kentucky has run a very conventional offense designed around a mix of the run and pass. This is effective because if you have both, it forces the defense to spread out and make running lanes for the backs, and the threat of a deep pass keeps the safeties further away from the line of scrimmage. Don't look for Phillips to change the offense -- it's what he's comfortable running, and I don't think he has any idea how to design a spread or other unconventional offense, and I'm positive Randy Sanders doesn't.
Because of the lack of a legitimate passing game, Kentucky cannot run the ball. Kentucky's line is constructed as a multipurpose one, designed to block for both the run and the pass, but not great at either. A team that is run-dominant will construct a line suited to that purpose, and a pass-dominant team likewise. Because UK tries to mix the two in nearly equal proportion, you have to execute both in order for the line to be effective.
The biggest problem with Kentucky's passing game right now, after looking long and hard at a couple of game replays, is that Morgan Newton is not an accurate passer. He consistently throws the football in sub-optimal places, making it harder on the receivers. The receivers haven't helped by dropping catchable balls, but Newton is the main problem. He lacks confidence in the pocket, takes too long to decide what to do, and when he does decide, too often either tries to zip the ball into traffic or lob it over the defender, but he doesn't have great touch.
Until Kentucky can find a throwing game to keep defenses honest, the Wildcats will continue to struggle on offense. The receivers are not running bad routes, as far as I can tell, although you never know unless you are on the coaching staff what route they are supposed to be running. Newton also tends to look at only one side of the field. He may or may not be locking on to a specific receiver, but he is certainly blocking out one side or the other.
So what can be done? I'm not a football coach, but here are some things I would try:
- Simplify the playbook and run more hurry-up downs. We don't have to run a whole drive that way, but we need to mix in some hurry-up with our regular offense. The hurry-up seems to calm Newton and force him to quit thinking and just react to what he sees.
- Throw more short passes. Kentucky has been reasonably successful with those, but when we throw the ball downfield a lot, we have difficulty. The reason is Newton gets the ball out faster on short passes, and he throws it hard enough that the defender has trouble breaking on it.
- Utilize the counter play more. The counter was effective against LSU, but UK rarely runs it.
- Run Newton out of the wildcat. There is always a risk of getting your QB hurt doing that, but honestly, that's a risk Kentucky has to take.
What the Kentucky offense lacks is confidence. Calipari has famously said that confidence is "demonstrated performance." That would seem to be an apt description in the case of the UK offense, as they have very little demonstrated success to fall back on. If Morgan Newton can't find a comfort zone, then perhaps a quarterback controversy would help. It seems Phillips thinks so as well.
Until Kentucky figures out how to execute the offense with confidence, they will continue to struggle. Confidence only comes from performance, so that produces the classic chicken-egg problem. How to break out of the cycle of futility? Usually it takes the return of an injured player or some other dramatic shakeup, and perhaps Raymond Sanders will be that spark. Phillips seems unwilling to shake up the lineup much, and the moves he has made haven't been successful.
Hopefully that will change, but we didn't see any signs of that at Tiger Stadium yesterday. But after next weekend, the season should get easier. Perhaps easier competition will allow the offense to develop some confidence. I hope so.
As for South Carolina, I have no real reason to expect Kentucky to break out there. The defense may bottle up the sometimes-futile Gamecock offense, but I have no reason to think that UK can put up more than 14 points on South Carolina, and the Gamecocks can certainly outscore that, even at their near-worst.
So what do you think should be done about the offense? I think the spread option or other major transformation is out, but other than that, what do you think?