Last Saturday night had plenty of errors to go around, but this post will focus on the offensive and defensive lines. Neither side of the line has showed much, if any practical, improvement on standard downs since Mark Stoops took over. This was a concern expressed in the defensive line and outside linebacker previews about stuffing the run and pressuring quarterbacks, especially with the graduation of Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. The offensive line preview raised concern about executing in short yardage situations and the over-reliance on talented, but inexperienced, youth. Unfortunately, these concerns have come to fruition.
The offensive line isn't consistent run-blocking on short yardage, and gives up too many sacks and tackles for loss. The defensive line doesn't feature natural pass-rushers which forces UK to blitz to generate pressure. You don't beat Mississippi State by blitzing them, because Dak Prescott is too good identifying and then remorselessly hitting his "hot route".
You don't beat MSU if you can't consistently run the ball, and make your offense more diversified. UK wasn't doing either and it turned out to be a recipe for disaster. Meanwhile, both deficiencies make it easier for opposing coaches to gameplan against UK.
Most worrisome is neither deficiency is going away this season. This team is what it is at this point. You can stick with the upperclassmen who have won you four games, or you can double-down on a youth movement. With a bowl game in grasp, it's wise to stick with the veterans - with one or two exceptions covered below - and hope for your strengths, and a bit of luck, to carry you to a bowl game.
When you can't generate a pass rush with only 4 players, and Dak isn't fooled by your blitzes, then you're gonna have a bad time.— A Sea of Blue (@ASeaOfBlue) October 25, 2015
Dak Prescott was casually reading blitzes, and then hitting hot routes left and right Saturday night. MSU's increasing confidence in its offensive line versus UK's defensive line enabled them to send out four to five players on routes without having to hold anyone back to help pass block. That, in turn, puts even more pressure on the secondary.
When UK did blitz, they simply weren't effective. This was reminiscent of the first half of the Auburn game when UK's blitzing linebackers weren't getting to the quarterback. It's not just the defensive linemen not winning one-on-one battles in the pass-rush. Equal responsibility lies with the linebackers.
Prescott dropped back to pass 36 times against UK. On those 36 attempts UK only pressured him on 2 charted occasions (Denzil Ware and Josh Forrest) before the garbage-time fourth quarter. That's the worse I've seen from a Mark Stoops defense since probably the Alabama game in 2013. When UK got in his face, Prescott did not complete a pass. If only this could have happened more.
Credit to UK for trying to get creative with their blitz packages. This is indicative of a coaching staff aware they need to jurry-rig a solution. UK regularly blitzes Forrest in the interior - either the A or B gaps - but against the Bulldogs he would also blitz off the edge as seen below. When he would blitz, the outside linebacker, in this case Ware, would drop into coverage along with Ryan Flannigan.
This is a variation of a blitz against Auburn except here Forrest blitzed through the A Gap:
UK very likely believes they have the personnel to realistically threaten a blitz from different angles, without losing anything in shallow pass coverage. In fact, Ware and Hatcher have been surprisingly adept in pass coverage this season. Nonetheless, the need to get creative is the direct result of no top-shelf, natural pass-rushers along the defensive line.
Blitzing more forces the secondary to be even better. Even if there isn't a blitz called, UK has to be solid in coverage for two, or even three, more seconds to get a coverage sack. It also helps if the opposing quarterback and/or offensive line are bad at picking up blitzes. This wasn't the case Saturday night.
UK's offense has been mediocre on standard downs and short yardage situations the last three seasons. S&P+ ranks UK's Adjusted Line Yards (measure of a given rush that combines the efforts of the offensive line and running back) as 107th in the country. UK's Rushing Success Rate (measure of how efficient you are on rushing downs) ranks 91st in the country. UK is not good on standard downs primarily because they cannot consistently run the ball. The only thing buoying the overall offense are the amount of explosive plays UK creates.
UK has that rare offense where as a fan you feel more comfortable on 3rd-and-long than 3rd-and-short— A Sea of Blue (@ASeaOfBlue) October 25, 2015
That's not all bad when you consider this offense starts 8 underclassmen, but against MSU's average rush defense, the results were nine negative plays (tackles for loss or sacks) on 15% of all plays in the first three quarters. Almost one out of every 5 plays put UK behind the chains, and that's before considering penalties. penalty on the goal line made it improbable for UK to walk away with a touchdown, and forced the team to settle for three points in a game that was quickly getting out of hand.
UK can't afford to just run the ball off-tackle, and be successful consistently. Possibly because of that reality, UK has to get creative on first down in order to broaden the playbook on subsequent downs. This was apparent against MSU in the second and third quarters. There were play-action short passes to C.J. Conrad and inside receivers, and UK would also go Four-Wide hoping to elicit a blitz out of MSU because UK had called a screen. This is probably another reason the run-pass option play has become increasingly prevalent from the start of the season when Shannon Dawson didn't appear as committed to it as Neal Brown had been previously.
Kudos to the coaches for trying to come up with work-arounds, but much like the defensive line, there's no overnight fix. Singling out players in this space isn't helpful. Broadly, the redshirt sophomores and freshmen still need more experience, and so I'll excuse their inconsistency. More troubling is the veterans with three years experience aren't playing better. There's still a lot of football to be played though.
Many of UK's younger players saw game reps against MSU. The blow-out delivered UK the opportunity to get actual game reps for players like guard Jervontius Stallings, running back Sihiem King, receiver TV Williams, and quarterback Drew Barker. It's good for these players to get game action, but given their reps were during garbage time, drawing conclusions probably isn't helpful.
On the other hand, UK also played several other young players while the game was still somewhat competitive. Mark Stoops tends to increasingly play back-ups towards the back-end of the previous two seasons as those players make progress in practice. It's also a good way to get them blooded headed into the offseason. So, seeing more players on the field for 4-8 snaps per game isn't that unusual. A lot of these players were on the defensive side of the ball suggesting the fluidity to that particular depth chart as well as the impact of injuries.
First is outside linebacker Josh Allen. Allen probably saw game action due to Jason Hatcher's ankle injury and Jabari Johnson not being a good fit to defend MSU's Four- and Five-Wide passing attack. He's been playing sporadically since the beginning of the year, and against MSU he did some promising things for a true freshman. On at least two occasions he seemingly was en route to hurry Prescott, but was held by MSU's offensive tackle (neither called). He also already looks much bigger than his listed 210 pounds. He's a promising prospect that, dare I say, physically reminds one of a young Bud Dupree.
Second is safety Mike Edwards. The redshirt freshman recorded seven tackles on Saturday, including a pass break-up in the endzone against 6'7'' receiver Darrion Hutcherson. Edwards was filling in for Marcus McWilson who had largely been playing well the last few weeks. Edwards did bite on a zone read that gave MSU it's last touchdown suggesting he's still playing off instinct more than discipline.
Arguably the most impressive was cornerback Derrick Baity. He played well often matched-up with MSU's leading receiver De'Runnya Wilson. I charted no completions to receivers he was covering despite three targets. He also made a nice play running through a block to tackle a receiver on a bubble screen for a one yard loss. 10 days ago, Coach Greenwell and myself predicted senior cornerback Cody Quinn had probably lost his starting job to JD Harmon or Kendall Randolph after the Auburn game. Baity has entered his name into the race after Saturday.
Fellow freshman corner Chris Westry has drawn all the attention to date, but Baity's promising play suggest UK has two talented freshmen corners.
UK's offensive and defensive lines are going to be outmatched at times this season, and there is no quick fix outside of tactics already being employed by the staff. Also, I think Derrick Baity should play more.