Last season the Kentucky offense had all the firepower of a Napoleonic Era musket. This was still a step up from the 2012's season "slingshot" offense, but modern football games aren't won when armed with ineffective tools. Mark Stoops and Neal Brown let it be known early and often last season that the team was a work in progress, and the final offensive numbers reflected that reality. Here's Brown from last November:
We’re not the type of team that’s built just to drop back and do that five to 10 times a game and think we’re going to hit a high percentage [completed passes over 15 yards]...So I guess what I’m saying is, we are taking our shots. We’re just not completing a whole bunch of them.
That's a simultaneously diplomatic and honest answer. We are taking our shots, but we aren't going to hit a lot of the time. UK fans are aware of the factors that created this situation: limited quarterback play, inconsistent offensive line execution, and a laughably low number of overall scholarship skill players, especially at receiver. One of my main concerns heading into the season was an emergence of play-making both in terms of quality and quantity. UK has been more offensively productive this season, and "explosive plays" by play-makers is a major reason.
Explosive plays are important in several different ways. They obviously make scoring easier which can help a team make comebacks, spread an opposing defense thin, and also relieve pressure on one's own defense. Additionally, offenses will inevitably face 3rd-and-long at various points, and must convert in order to maintain drives. If a team can convert in these situations it decreases the significance of failure on 1st or 2nd downs.
Explosive plays may not always lead to points - they can also flip the field. Even if an offense falls apart after a 25 yard play, for example. Take a 25 yard play, add a 40 yard punt, and your defense's field position has improved significantly. Additionally, big plays can be a demoralizing sucker punch to a defense. In short, "big plays are probably the single most important factor to winning football games."
On top of that, being explosive isn't just about an increase in the occasional big plays. Being explosive also means your offensive floor gets raised too. A measure of average yards per play is subject to outliers (Braylon Heard isn't going to average 45 yards per carry), but it will also reflect the size of an offense's normal gains too. For example, UK's first down running play increases from an average of 2.1 yards to an average of 3.7 yards. Being explosive also makes one more efficient.
Comparing The Numbers
Brown defines explosive plays in that same November interview as running plays that go for more than 10 yards, and pass plays that go for more than 18 yards. In 2013, UK had a total of 17 explosive plays in the first two games of last season. In two games this year, against comparable competition, UK has compiled 26 explosive plays.
In all of last season UK had 57 run plays that went for more than 10 yards, and in two games this season they already have 15 plays, or 26%, of that number. In 2013, there were a total of 49 pass plays for more than 15 yards. In two games this season there have been 13 plays, or 26%, of that number. The improvement is even more impressive when considering Jalen Whitlow was responsible for nearly 55% of those explosive plays last season. Despite his transfer the production will likely increase substantially by season's end.
Further accolades can be found here.
What Is Responsible For The Quick Turnaround?
Explanations will vary, but it probably comes down to a combination of increased talent and the offensive system. The injection of new talent has been transformative. UK signed five receivers in the last class, and two enrolled early. All were three star recruits, and 2-3 were four stars depending on the service. Four of these guys have already contributed. The increased production hasn't even included probable starters Alexander Montgomery and Jeff Badet or Javess Blue against Ohio. These guys would probably be 3 of UK's leading 4 or 5 receivers this season if healthy.
The running back position is also completely different. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard has made an immediate impact along with true freshmen Stanley Williams and Mikel Horton. Josh Clemons is also finally healthy. The running back corps looks nothing like it did last year either, aside from its best running back, Jojo Kemp, returning and also finally healthy.
Newly available talent helps but so does Neal Brown's offensive scheme. The Air Raid's playbook is usually installed in a matter of days. After it's installation, all the focus is on improving fundamentals and further fine-tuning. Because Brown wants to run a face-pace offense, he also must practice that way. This results in individuals and units getting more repetitions (this helps the defense too). If 90% of your time is focused on drilling what you already know, improvement typically comes quicker.
UK is now about to take the leap into the jaws of SEC defenses. There won't be an adjustment period as Florida's defenses have been exceptional under Will Muschamp. The rest of the future defenses won't decline much either all the way to the regular season finale in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
Meanwhile, UK's offensive efficiency remains troubling in short-yardage situations. Without adjusting for strength of schedule, UK is so far only averaging 2.8 yards per carry if it's 3rd down- and-3 or fewer yards. That's certainly not bad, but it's only going to get tougher rendering the occasional big play even more important.
A regression to the mean is inevitable given future competition, but the production has been impressive enough in two games to warrant the conclusion that the ceiling has been raised this season. There will be more total yards and points than last season, barring a plague of injuries or utter meltdown. UK will play the games to find out by how much.