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Kentucky Offense Too Conservative Against Vanderbilt?

The offense may have been conservative against Vanderbilt, but there were several reasons why and it wasn't due to play-calling.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

In the aftermath of Saturday's game against Vanderbilt, there was some concern Kentucky had played too conservatively in the second half. Questioning the play-calling is a right universally exercised by all sports fans. It's fun to debate, and what else do we have to talk about? Yet, this was the second time this season UK seemed to close up the playbook in the second half. The first time was against Ohio, a game which was never really in doubt, and it made sense at the time to not reveal too much prior to heading to Florida. Yesterday, on the other hand, Kentucky turned the ball over three times, and luckily the defense played their best game in years. If they hadn't, perhaps the 10 point lead would have vanished.

After re-watching the offensive series in the second half, I think the answer is more complicated. UK did play a bit more conservatively, but that was due to several different reasons that had little bearing on the play-calling. Bad penalties, success running the ball, Vanderbilt's defense, and poor blocking are the culprits for offensive impotency. UK maintained aggression but in a different way than the Florida game. Let's look at the numbers.

The Raw Numbers

In the third quarter, UK had a 44%-56% pass-to-run ratio. That's within a few percentage points of the season average. On top of that, UK had success running the ball on first down. On first down, UK ran for 14 yards, 5 yards, 2 yards, and 8 yards. That's a 60% success rate (gaining more than 4 yards on first down). When any team is having success running the ball on first down, has the lead in the second half, and it's defense is playing well, it's likely going to run the ball again on 2nd and 3rd down. That's natural.

In the fourth quarter, the pass-to-run ratio increased to 23%-77%. On first down, UK had runs of 1 yard, 1 yard, 10 yards, 4 yards, 5 yards, 30 yards, and 0 yards. That's a success rate of 57%. Notably, UK did attempt two pass plays for more than 15 yards in the fourth quarter but the passes fell incomplete. If they had been completed, those drives would have been extended.

Another issue that killed two of UK's three drives in the fourth quarter were major penalties. There were three penalties that put UK behind the chains. Again, with a lead in the fourth quarter and your defense playing well, a team will usually elect to play it safe to avoid a sack or turnover. Throw a dump-off pass against a secondary playing the first down marker 15 yards down field, hope to get 8 yards, and punt for better field position.

Combo Plays And Vandy's Defense

We talked about combo plays in the summer [link fixed]. Neal Brown likes to run combo plays to give his quarterback and opportunity to get out of bad running plays. I counted five combo plays in the third quarter and one in the fourth quarter. The option to throw was there, but Towles determined the defense was weaker against the run. These option-type plays will skew UK's overall pass-run ratio, and may make the offense seem more conservative when in reality it was just taking what the defense was giving.

Note: Ryan Timmon's touchdown was the result of a combo play. His defender was playing him soft and Towles made the right read and delivered the ball.

Vanderbilt also made some of its own adjustments. In the first half, their defensive backs were giving UK's receivers a 4-8 yard cushion at the snap of the ball. If you give Towles and his receivers that much space to work, he'll just start the game throwing 12-for-12. Vanderbilt adjusted and squeezed their defensive backs tighter onto the receivers. When that happened, more combo plays end up being hand-offs.

Vanderbilt also must be credited with their pass rush. In the second half Towles was sacked on three occasions. Receivers couldn't run any medium or deep passing routes, because Towles was being given so little time. Some of that is on UK's offensive line and running backs providing protection, but Vanderbilt has some very good players too.

Unlike Florida, Vanderbilt also played with two deep safeties for most of the game. Two safeties deep make it more difficult to complete deep passes, and conversely they make it easier to run the ball since fewer defenders are in the box. Combine two-deep safety looks along with an effective pass-rush, and an aggressive passing game probably wasn't in the cards for UK's offense on a regular basis. Despite that, UK still took its shots downfield. They just didn't connect.


UK appeared to have conservative play-calling but that's due to a range of factors. UK had success running the ball (183 yards rushing), Vanderbilt's defense was designed to prevent deep passes, and costly penalties along with negative plays put UK's offense behind schedule in the fourth quarter. With a late lead, and your defense playing well, offenses will be less aggressive on third-and-long in those situations in order to avoid turnovers or sacks.