Using historical statistics to predict future outcomes is common place across industries and hobbies. There will always be less accuracy when they are employed in college football given the relatively small 12 game sample sizes. Despite that, both S&P+ and FEI are correct in picking winners over 50% of the time. That doesn't mean how they get to their outcomes is always supported by their data.
For example, what the numbers said would happen last Thursday in the raucous confines of Commonwealth Stadium night did not really occur. Auburn should have run the ball all over a, to date, milquetoast UK rush defense; instead, they were held to 152 yards rushing (previously a 190 yard per game average). UK was suppose to be very good on passing downs, especially defending third downs. Yet, Auburn was 8-for-11 in the first half, and finished at 61% when all season long UK held opponents to 35% conversions on third down.
A weird game statistically, if not necessarily a bizarre outcome. Auburn's offense dominated the first half en route to 23-10 halftime lead on the broad shoulders of 297 yards of total offense. But wait! In the third quarter UK bounced back. Let's examine.
Spotlight on The Third Quarter
In the third quarter, UK's defense forced three consecutive punts while only allowing 13 yards. That's almost certainly the best defensive quarter in the Stoops Era. Three series where UK's defense gave up practically nothing against a SEC opponent.
Cody Quinn did not play his best on Thursday night. He wasn't the lone defensive back who got torched by Auburn wide receiver Ricardo Louis in the first half, but he had his share of getting burned by Louis 5 catches for 110 yards by the end of Auburn's second drive. He also wasn't beating his blocks in Auburn's screen game.
This was Auburn's most successful play of the third quarter, and it wasn't long after this that UK asked J.D. Harmon to move from Chris Westry's back-up at the opposite corner position (boundary), and take over Quinn's duties on the wider side (field). Harmon, and later his back-up Kendall Randolph, did a better job in coverage but also getting off their blocks. Recall that Quinn is listed at 5'10'' 180 pounds which is probably charitable. Run support is physically not his forte.
This is a pretty standard picture of UK's defense of running plays this quarter, and it's textbook for a 3-4 defense's front seven. All three down linemen are engaging their blocks while maintaining the line of scrimmage. They aren't shooting gaps, but are soaking blockers. Matt Elam is drawing the center and right guard, Farrington Hugeunin is drawing the left tackle, while Reggie Meant draws the right tackle. That effectively frees up linebackers Josh Forrest and Ryan Flannigan to make the tackle. Elam and Meant both beat their men and assist on the tackle.
Notice Jabari Johnson is also unblocked on the bottom of the line. He is reading the mesh between the quarterback and running back. He is assigned the quarterback on this play and wisely doesn't bite on the hand-off (like he did in the first half that resulted in a nice quarterback run), because if he did the quarterback was going to pull the ball and run to that side. There's a lot of effort and discipline all-around on this play.
UK continued the effort. In the first half, UK couldn't get much pressure on Auburn despite blitzing Forrest and Flannigan. It didn't help that Auburn quarterback Sean White was taking short drops, but when your name is called you have to get there sometimes regardless of the circumstances and make effort plays. n this play UK is showing an all-out blitz with Cover 0 behind it. It's well-disguised.
Flannigan and Jason Hatcher actually drop into the middle shallow zone, and UK ends up playing a quarters coverage at the first down marker. This throws off White, and the pass-rush gets to him resulting in an incomplete pass. Recall, UK had not stopped Auburn on third downs in the first half. This was a well-disguised play that really could only happen given the versatility of Hatcher and blitzers Stamps and Forrest. UK has the athletes to legitimately show that on passing plays at least 7 players can show blitz.
The Offense Did It's Thing Too
The offense meanwhile put up 158 yards of total offense in the third quarter. A reason they starting picking up more yards is that Auburn was playing exceptionally soft.
This was pretty standard on UK's drives in the third quarter. The Auburn corners are giving 5-7 yards of cushion, while the safeties are giving up anywhere between 12-16 yards. UK had established by this point the ability to hit long pass plays, but had yet to demonstrate an ability to chain together long drives. Will Muschamp was going to see if the young offense was capable of doing so. This isn't much different than how UK's defense was playing Auburn's offense either.
UK adjusted and started hitting the short 6-9 yard passes, and taking what the defense gave them. When Auburn screwed up coverage assignments the slot receivers, especially Garrett Johnnson were adept in sitting down in the soft zone area between corner, nickel, and safety coverage responsibilities. You get 7 yards on first down, and the next two downs are manageable every time.
UK then mixed it up a little bit, as there's more than one way to attack soft coverage.
Instead of just hitting simple short routes, UK also begins to mix in tunnel screens which leads to two lead blockers, and plenty of space for Baker to read his blocks. This play went for about 13 yards.
I went back and looked at the charted numbers for UK's pass plays this season. I find some interesting things. Kentucky has averaged roughly 6-7 yards per pass attempt this season. What has helped make the offense more explosive in the last three games is it's now averaging about 12 yards per pass completion. Now UK is either converting on the longer passes or getting yards after the catch. Shannon Dawson would seem to agree:
Dawson said when he's aggressive the offense tends to play better.— Jen Smith (@jenheraldleader) October 20, 2015
UK did a good job picking up Auburn's blitzes in the first half, specifically in terms of hitting the "Hot" route. In the image below you can see that the safety has moved up on a blitz giving the appearance that Garrett Johnson in the slot is one-on-one in man coverage against the nickel.
Throwing to Johnson here garnered UK a lot of yards in the first half and on the first drive in the third quarter, but this time Auburn was hoping to bait UK into throwing to Johnson. Watch the inside linebacker immediately look to where Johnson is running over the middle creating a double team. Then watch as Towles works his progressions and throws a dagger to Dorian Baker on the outside who couldn't haul in the pass.
That play isn't on Towles.
Can this be replicated?
If Mississippi State plays soft coverages this week, UK will be poised to exploit such an approach. UK's sophomore receivers have done a better job at reading zone, and finding where to sit down in the soft gaps between defender's responsibilities. Meanwhile, if UK gets man coverage they will almost certainly look to use their advantage of Johnson against whatever safety or nickel they put against him. The Bulldog's defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has coached at a lot of high profile schools, and was a hot coaching name a few years ago. He's known for making adjustments. His scheme will pose a challenge.
For the defense, they'll absolutely have to give the level of effort against the run again this week. Mississippi State doesn't really have a running game. UK has to take advantage, and do a better job defending short quick routes that Auburn exposed. I would have felt a lot better about UK's pass defense prior to Auburn, but MSU will have an even better short passing game. They'll also have a quarterback in Dak Prescott who can create when plays fall apart. Which UK defender is assigned to Prescott will have to tackle him in open space - sometimes solo - when he starts to scramble to end drives. That's a tall order.