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Upon Further Review: It's The Tackling, Stupid.

Every week I chart UK's games for SB Nation. The "Upon Further Review" series are my impressions after spending several hours on Sundays and Mondays breaking down every play. Want to see all the data? Shoot me an email and it's yours.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

In a prime-time game, under a national media glare not seen in years, Kentucky had moments of true brilliance against the top-ranked team in the country. Frustratingly, those moments of achievement were also knotted up with jaw-dropping moments of seemingly preventable mistakes. Both types of moments were overtly tied to the fundamentals of blocking and tackling.

Some people try to find things in this game that don't exist; but football is only two things - blocking and tackling. --Vince Lombardi

In some ways UK blocked better than it had all season. Patrick Towles had clear running lanes for the most part, and all-star Preston Smith was largely contained on the edge. Conversely, UK's defense easily tackled the worst it has this season. Some of that is due to the talent of Josh Robinson and Dak Prescott, and some of it is just bad technique.

You want to be thankful for the pure giddiness success brings you as a sports fan, as it's the reward for the pathos that comes from inevitable moments of failure, but rarely do we experience both emotions so uncut and undiluted in a single game. At least I haven't.

The Defense

At the outset, UK appeared very concerned about stopping MSU's rushing attack, and seemed set on forcing Prescott to beat them throwing the ball. That's a risky proposition with a Heisman quality quarterback under center, but it does makes tactical sense for UK. UK has not been great against the run all season, and needed to load the box against MSU.

Meanwhile, its secondary has proven capable of preventing big pass plays and forcing turnovers. Kentucky has allowed opponents to complete a Power 5 low 26% percent of passes thrown 10 yards or longer this season. A big improvement over last season when UK allowed opponents to complete 53% of such passes, worst for any Power 5 defense.

To this point in the season, UK has tackled pretty well. When charting games there are usually somewhere between 7-9 plays when at least one tackle is missed (and that even includes the LSU game). Against MSU that number exploded to 17 plays with missed tackles, and on nearly half of those plays were more than one defender missing a tackle.

Furthermore, in  previous occasions, a missed tackle typically results in the ball carrier getting an extra 3-4 yards. The effect is minimized due to good team pursuit of the ball. Yet, against MSU, the approximate median for yards gained after a missed tackle was 15 yards.

You can call just the right alignment, and players can diagnose the play correctly, but missing tackles wipe out everything you've done to reach the tipping point to success. MSU would go on to have 211 yards after contact, third-most for a SEC team in the last three seasons, according to ESPN Statistics.

As previously mentioned, Robinson and Prescott's abilities have a lot to do with UK's performance. Another contributing factor is the way UK played. If a defense loads the box, then gap integrity becomes even more important. This is even more true if the defense is man coverage against 3- and 4-Wide sets. At most there will only be one safety playing deep because personnel is spread thin.

If a defense is in all-out Cover 0 there won't be anyone in the rearguard. If a ball carrier is able to break free through the first, and only, line of defense then go ahead and throw up six points on the scoreboard. Tackling becomes even more critical when a defense sells out to stop the run.

MSU scored in these conditions on two separate occasions. The first time MSU scored in this situation was in the third quarter near the goal-line. Here UK is in their Dime package and look to be in Cover 1 with a single safety deep. MSU has UK spread thin, only had one linebacker in, and a quarterback draw seems like a good play-call, especially if you use an H-back to be his lead blocker. That was the case, and once Prescott broke free from the line he only had to make Ashely Lowery miss to walk into the end zone.

In the fourth quarter, Josh Robinson took one to the house when UK looked to be in Cover 0 without any defender deep. You can see all eleven defenders near the line of scrimmage pre-snap. It's 3rd-and-1 so it's a completely sensible decision.


All it would take is one missed tackle for an excellent back like Robinson to take it to the house (give it a second):

Here's another angle on the play from an overhead replay. It gives an even better look how no one was back deep. On MSU's next possession, a similar scenario repeats itself as Prescott breaks the line and scrambles 23 yards for a first down.

Defensive Positives of Note (click on links to go to YouTube video queued for this play)
1Q 10:43 UK confuses MSU tackle by faking an AJ Stamps blitz. This misdirection allows Bud to get into the backfield completely untouched and get a sack.
1Q 6:08 Then back-up Jabari Johnson takes on a pulling guard and still makes the tackle for loss. The other UK defensive linemen seem to be on a slant stunt to the inside. If true, Johnson had to make the play to prevent a gain and he did. Plays like this are why he's starting Saturday.
1Q 4:10 Josh Forrest gets to pitch man so fast he's surprised to see Prescott still has the ball. I wanted to share this partly because it made me laugh, but also it illustrates Forrest's speed even surprises himself sometimes. He misses the tackle but good team pursuit gets him off the hook.
2Q 4:43 Here MSU is forced to call a timeout. I watched this sequence of both teams audibling, and it looks like a chess match is going on between Mullen and DJ Elliot both trying to get an advantage. UK looks to be in Dime personnel.
3Q 12:55 UK rushes five against five and gets great pressure upfront. Prescott is rushed, and overthrows his receiver who looked to be open.

The Offense

The offense executed well Saturday (and Neal Brown called a good game) as it put up more yards against MSU's defense than Auburn or Texas A&M were able to manage outside of garbage time. On three different occasions UK fell behind by 14 points, and every time fought back to close the gap.

Dooming UK may have been third down execution. Heading into the fourth quarter UK was an impressive 5-for-10 on that critical down, but went 0-for-4 on third downs in the fourth quarter.

Patrick Towles deserves a lot of credit for the offense's success. Towles showed off for a national audience what we've become accustomed to here. He is dangerous running the ball, when he's reading his blocks correctly, and he has a NFL caliber arm. Check out his first touchdown pass to Demarco Robinson:

Towles is throwing the ball from the opposite hash to an Out route along the far sideline that's nominally 15 yards down field. It's an excellent display of his arm strength to throw the ball at that trajectory and speed, and also a testament to his accuracy to squeeze it through good coverage. He made this same throw several times at the spring game, and it was apparent then that his ceiling was high.

UK also capitalized on soft coverage by MSU's secondary. If defenses give too much pre-snap cushion to UK's receivers, UK is going to take the free yards. Even more so on standard downs when the running game isn't working. For example, Towles started off the Vanderbilt game 11-for-11 until Vanderbilt adjusted and started playing tighter. LSU played press coverage the entire game, and UK never got much of anything going.

The offensive line also had a good game considering their competition [UPDATE: Neal Brown says they did not grade out well. I don't disagree but I've adjusted my expectations]. Neal Brown considered MSU's front seven "the best in the SEC and maybe the country" prior to the game, and he's not a coach who regularly takes to hyperbole. This offensive line has its limitations in places, so playing pretty well against a tough match-up is to be celebrated, especially if likely SEC Defensive Lineman of the Year Preston Smith is held to two sacks with one of them arguably being Towles' fault.

The running game is still inconsistent as UK continues to have issues running the ball in short yardage situations with its running backs. What has largely worked this season are direct snap running plays, whether it be in the Wildcat or to Towles on designed quarterback runs. UK needs the benefit of an extra lead blocker to pick up yards. Credit should be given to UK's offensive line who opened some huge holes for Towles Saturday like this 48 yard run at the beginning of the third quarter:

Towles could practically stroll through this it was blocked so well:


Offensive Positives of Note (click on links to go to YouTube video queued for this play)
1Q 14:32 Great blocking on QB designed run, especially by tight end/H-back Ronnie Shields
1Q 7:28 Darrian Miller does a great job staying with AJ Jefferson and taking him out of the play.
2Q 8:20 Fullback DJ Warren takes out two MSU players while lead blocking out of the Wildcat. I did not think the fullbacks and tight ends blocked well against LSU. I thought they were much better this game. Credit to them and Coach Marrow.
3Q 3:40 Towles throws an absolute strike to Javess Blue for a TD.
4Q 3:33 Towles makes an opposite hash throw to an Out route again on a critical drive. Great catch by Dorian Baker too.

What did we learn? It's really hard to predict how college kids will play. They could look terrible one week at LSU, and then bounce back the next week and threaten the No. 1 team all the way to the end despite never having a lead. This game reinforces their fight and inner toughness to me. I'm not sure the offense is as good as the numbers showed, but I'm also pretty sure the defense is much better than it played.

Missouri may make for a measuring stick.