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How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love UK's Offense

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The offense has actually been a success this season.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The offense did not have a great game Saturday but the causes had more to do with Missouri being a match-up problem and Kentucky's inexperience than play-calling. Missouri's defense is good at preventing big plays, and is especially good on the defensive line. That's a recipe for preventing UK's offense from succeeding, and a lot of that has to do with Kentucky's youth.

When people refer to this team as "young" they are primarily referring to the offense. The offense plays the way inexperienced units typically play. They are volatile, execute inconsistently, and require mismatches to win the majority of one-on-one battles. UK's offense survives on big plays, and exploits thin front sevens over time with pace.

The recipe to beating UK's defense was at least established as early as LSU. Blitz infrequently and drop seven defenders into coverage. UK's offensive line performs too inconsistently to give Towles more than three seconds in a sound pocket, and that eliminates most deep routes that take longer to develop. If UK faces a defense that has both an active front four that doesn't need to blitz to generate pressure, and a secondary adept at preventing the big play, UK's average offense is in trouble (as would a lot of others).

It's going to be a long road back, and it's hard to expect too much when you scrutinize the roster:

Player Years of Experience
Darrian Miller 3
Jordan Swindle 2
Jon Toth 2
Ramsey Meyers/Cole Mosier 1/1
Nick Haynes/Zach West 1/3
Patrick Towles 1
Braylon Heard/Jojo Kemp/Stanley Williams/Mikel Horton 1/2/1/1
Demarco Robinson/Blake Bone/Dorian Baker 3/1/1
Javess Blue/Ryan Timmons 2/2
Steve Borden/Ronnie Shields/DJ Warren 2/1/1

That's a lot of youth, and two years of experience is still half of what most of SEC defenses field, especially the last two UK has faced. Despite the bounty of inexperience, the offense is still better than last season, according to both the raw stats and the adjusted F+ data.

In the preseason I thought the offense would average 26.5 points per game (it was 20.5 points per game in 2013), but this season it has averaged 29 points which is encouraging improvement from last season. That figure also places UK's scoring offense a few points away from being in the middle-of-the-pack for the SEC. I still shudder when I think of the 2012 and 2013 offenses from the last two seasons, and the pace of improvement satisfies me.

Perhaps age and inexperience wouldn't matter if these were five star recruits, but UK doesn't have any of those guys, and even if they were, those studs still don't usually make immediate impacts. Unlike basketball, football players need years to develop their bodies to be able to compete against SEC competition. This is especially true up front where UK is the weakest.

On Saturday, UK continued to have issues on the interior of the offensive line, but a lot of those guys are young. The offensive tackles have been better, but Saturday they faced future NFL draft picks on Missouri's defensive line. Any time UK faces a strong front seven it will struggle running the ball and later avoiding sacks on third downs. UK is not good in these areas in the first place which exacerbated conditions Saturday.

There were other positions that played poorly too. The receivers had a lot of drops, the running backs need to play more consistently, and Towles also did not play his best. Again, a lot of that has to do with youth. For example, Ryan Timmons and Patrick Towls are expected to be the offense's leading play-makers, but they have less than three years experience combined.

The Play-Calling

I'm going to be honest, I watched this game in a loud New Orleans sports bar during a bachelor party. The prism through which I watched was affected by copious amounts of raw shellfish, Abita, and comradery. I haven't charted the game, so the following thoughts are based on my initial impressions which were distracted in the first place.

The play-calling wasn't surprising to me. Neal Brown typically has Towles call a running play if the defense gives a "two deep safety" look on a standard down. In the limited amount I've watched Missouri this season and last, that's how they align most of the time. They have a great defensive line so don't need to cheat up, and they aren't a particularly aggressive defense in either case.

These facts definitely affect the overall play-calling, and is why more short passes and runs were called on 2nd-and-long or 2nd-and-medium situations. The hope was to pick up a few yards, and make 3rd downs more manageable. Depending on your formation, you have 5-7 blockers against 5-7 defenders, and that's an advantage for the offense. One could quibble with a play here or there, of course, but generally speaking the coaches were setting the players up for success.

Missouri was allowing 133 yards rushing per game, and UK's coaches expect the offensive line to produce similar numbers. It's important for the coaches to emphasize high expectations on the young players now, so when they are older and physically ready, they will have been developed to achieve them.

Neal Brown said at the start of the season he wasn't going to over-rely on schemes this year. He wanted to focus on fundamentals and I think calling plays that may put the offense at a disadvantage at times is a piece of that larger effort. It's about laying a foundation for the future when this offense is matured in a few seasons. Taking the lumps now for the return on investment next season and beyond.