The 2014 Kentucky offense has already surpassed my expectations despite this year's offense being exhilarating one series and frustrating the next. Mutable play is typically the result of fielding a lot of young and inexperienced players. Additonally, inexperienced offenses don't typically show improvement as the season progresses even nationally. UK seems to be fitting right in to that trend. Encouragingly, UK's offense has made big plays this year. In the coming seasons, as experience increases, I suspect the explosive nature maintains while the consistency levels rise. Then we'll all be happy, right?
That's not to say there aren't issues regarding execution. Poor execution renders play-calling, game-planning, and scheming moot. Our community member Greenwell recently pointed out several instances of poor execution against Missouri. Play-calling can be poor, and game plans can be wrong, but applying over-arching labels is a bridge too far especially when done without taking into account a team's experience level.
Let's face it, Neal Brown didn't rise up the ranks from UMASS graduate assistant to being Tommy Tuberville's offensive coordinator, and later Mark Stoops', if he didn't consistently impress his peers.
UK's offense is falling short in several areas Brown has publicly identified as his keys to winning more ball games than you lose. These all boil down to execution, and while one wouldn't expect an inexperienced team to surpass all these measures, they should be performing much better than they are. Let's judge Brown's offense by his own benchmarks:
First Example: First Down Efficiency - 4 yards 48% of the time
Brown made public this team's need to perform better on first down after the LSU game. I don't have specific first down figures, but Football Outsiders shows that UK is only successful on standard downs (50% of yards on first down, 70% of yards on second down, and 100% of yards on third or fourth down) 40% of the time. That ranks UK 86th in the country. A month ago UK was ranked 52nd after the South Carolina game.
If that is UK's overall success rate, I highly doubt UK is reaching its goal of four yards on first downs either. It's critical to get ahead of the chains early, especially when the defense is forced to account for either a run or pass. Dropped passes, penalties, and rush attempts stuffed complicate everything that follows. First down success is all the more important because UK is doing even worse on third downs.
Second Example: Third Down Efficiency - 45% completion
UK is only converting third downs 34% of the time, which is well below Brown's stated goal. That ranks UK at 13th in the SEC overall, and is only 4% higher than last season. Accordingly, UK is 97th in the country on passing downs.
This is the result of receivers not getting open when one-on-one, quarterbacks losing their fundamentals and making poor throws under pressure, and running backs not reading their blocks. Third downs are tough enough to convert, and there's a reason Brown's goal starts at a number below 50%. Focus and attention to detail must be even sharper on these critical downs. Defenses defend the first down markers, and there are few plays in third down situations that will catch them off guard.
Third Example: Red Zone Efficiency - Points 90% of the time; touchdowns 67% of the time
Finishing drives may be the single most important factor for success, and UK has been below average in this regard. UK did not reach the 90% mark for at least three points in either September or October, and it only managed to score touchdowns on 54% of red zone trips in October; September was even more brutal. UK is currently 11th in the SEC in red zone efficiency, and is only 1% more efficient than last season.
The field is shortened in the red zone. Deep passes aren't available, and the defense is more condense. The offense may be on the verge of scoring, but it's probably the least favorable operating environment for an offense making execution all the more imperative. There aren't magical play-calls in these situations to change the condensed environment. The offense must have a sense of urgency similar to third downs and win their individual battles.
A great example of this failure was last week against Mizzou. Late in the fourth, UK needed one yard on a fourth down to extend their drive near Mizzou's goal-line. I don't mind the argument for choosing to kick the field goal in that situation, but in any case, the team has to get that yard in that situation or they don't deserve the victory in the first place.
Fourth Example: Tempo - 75 snaps per game.
UK is currently averaging 70 snaps per game putting UK at 85th in the country in tempo. This benchmark is in the best shape compared to those above, but consider what UK loses by missing out on five plays per game. Depending on the top few players, UK averages five to six yards per play. That's on average 25-30 yards UK is leaving over the course of the game. Depending on field position, those extra plays could translate to more points or better field position for the defense.
The offense has fixable mistakes which is the good news. Signs it is well coached are few offensive penalties per game (usually 2-4), and the unit has significantly improved at not turning the ball over despite playing better defenses.
The defense's play shouldn't go unnoticed either, as that unit has a symbiotic relationship with the offense. The defense needs to create more turnovers (turnover margin is incredibly important to team success) than it has as of late, prevent fewer explosive plays (UK can't win the explosive play battle if the defense is giving up 5-8 per game), and give the offense better field position. Starting games strong can buy the offense time to score points, and gain confidence before being forced to play from behind.
UK's offense must starting bucking the national trend of inexperienced offenses getting worse in November because Georgia has a pretty good defense, and Tennessee and Louisville's are even better. Without executing better in the areas listed above, this team likely won't go bowling.