Kentucky Football: In-Game Adjustments Against Missouri Only Went So Far

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky's coaches are making in-game adjustments this season, but there may be a ceiling to performance due to the competition this roster faces.

Despite the final score, one could take heart in the tactical adjustments Kentucky coaches made during the UK-Missouri game. This has been a positive development all season, actually. UK's staff seem to identify weakness in UK's schemes and make changes accordingly without having any dogmatic attachments. Likewise, if UK's coaching staff notices an opponent's tendencies they work to exploit them in-game. Anecdotal examples include: noticing Miami (OH) running new offensive formations in their pre-game, and so changed their defensive schemes; removing defenders from the box once it became apparent UofL's running game was not that team's strength; and using South Carolina's tendency to gamble on shooting gaps and blitzing to run more screens in the second half - and later a clever fake screen that scored a touchdown (34 second mark).

Proof is also available statistically. UK is outscoring its opponents 79-78 in the second half this year after removing the outlier scores against the University of Alabama and the University of Alabama State. This is a slim margin but demonstrates UK competitiveness the second half of games this season. More importantly, it's a dramatic improvement over last season when UK was outscored 51-119 in the second half (after removing the outlier scores again). Unfortunately, adjustments can only go so far. Looking back at the UK-Missouri game there are a few defensive adjustments worth highlighting that eventually extended UK's competitiveness, but eventually the limitations of personnel were revealed. If first or second downs are for game plans, and third down is for play-makers and talent there's only so much UK can do.

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Early in the first quarter it is 2nd and 11 and Missouri ball. Missouri is in a basic spread formation, and UK is showing man coverage. Alvin "Bud" Dupree moves off of the line of scrimmage and actually waives at Blake McClain to do the same resulting in McClain being 8 yards off line of scrimmage in a support coverage. Missouri has effectively forced Bud to cover two players if they run shallow routes: the slot receiver and the running back in the backfield. This is a mismatch, Missouri appears to recognize it, and the slot receiver will be the quarterback's first read. The result is an open slot receiver and an incompletion on this play, but Missouri comes back to the same look later in the second quarter for a large gain and a first down.

UK responds by deciding to place Bud on the line of scrimmage permanently and letting him focus on winning his battles against an offensive tackle rather than a skill position. Unfortunately, this results in one less defender patrolling a shallow zone and forces even more man coverage by UK. The results against Missouri's outstanding receiver corps were inevitable.

UK played the run very well up until Missouri's final possession of the first half. Up until that point Missouri only had 51 yards rushing and 27 of those yards came on a single play. The image below shows how Missouri started to respond. Realizing they were losing the battle at the line of scrimmage if there were at least equal defenders in the box as offensive blockers they spread the field and forced Avery Williamson to leave the box to cover his assignment who is running a wheel route up the sideline.

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At that point UK is now outnumbered in the box and Missouri has the tactical advantage. They run this play again immediately after the one above, and they'll continue to come back to it. Despite the numerical advantage UK still defends the outside zone runs fairly well. UK will sometimes slide a safety into the box at the last moment to even out the numbers, but that allows Missouri's wide receivers to shine, especially Dorial Green-Beckham, and UK's secondary can only do so much against a 6'6'' talented receiver.

Later, Missouri will have success running in their last possession of the first half when they begin pulling offensive linemen and gaining an advantage at the point of attack. If linemen get to the second level and are blocking linebackers and safeties big chunks of yardage are inevitable. Some of Missouri's long zone runs in the second half came as a result of UK's front seven over- pursuing these plays, allowing Missouri's running back to have clear running lanes cutting back.

UK made offensive adjustments as well. In addition to predicting Missouri blitzes and calling screens on those plays (Javess Blue got a big gain on one of these), UK also noticed early on that Missouri was playing a vanilla 4-3 defense with a Cover 2 zone behind it. On the few effective passing downs UK attacked by running high and low routes on the same side of the field, or finding the empty section of the zone along the seam. These methods are a basic way to attack a Cover 2. Jalen Whitlow's arm strength is limited, and the offensive line was not good enough to allow a 5-step drop against Missouri's defensive line, so most of these routes were shallow but still somewhat effective especially on UK's first two possessions.

Starting the second half UK's offense ceased running four receiver sets and focused on running the ball out of a variation of the Pistol formation. They brought in a tight end and a fullback and went on to have success scoring 14 points in the third quarter. Missouri responded to both the exploitation of its Cover 2 zone and UK's running attack by playing more man coverage and stacking the box. UK noticed and attempted to exploit. UK called a play action on their goal line with Raymond Sanders faking the handoff, and then running a wheel route, with a linebacker matched up on him. That's a match-up UK will be comfortable with against Missouri. The play turned into a 40 yard gain until Sanders fumbled the ball while being tackled from behind. Good play call and adjustment to Missouri's man coverage, but a typically reliable player just didn't make the play.

From that point on there were few adjustments to be made on either side. Poor special teams play, a silly fumble, and great Missouri field possession most of the third quarter condemned UK to only playing for respectability and allowed Missouri to play their back-ups. The final result is not encouraging, but watching how UK's coaches operate in an environment where they are largely outgunned, but still keep the team competitive in stretches is promising for the future.

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