Last Saturday was Mark Stoops' biggest win at Kentucky. It was a game against a ranked opponent that hadn't lost a road game in two years, was the two-time defending SEC champ, and it was a game that required a bounce-back performance. UK may not have had their backs against the proverbial wall after the Florida performance, but the 'Cats were getting backed into a corner. A break-out performance was becoming needed.
Heady times like this serve as cause to revisit the past. I've previously been informed that the word nostalgia is Greek for "the pain from an old wound. A twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone." I, indeed, feel nothing but pain thinking about UK's program when Mark Stoops took over. The team was in terrible shape. It was so bad after the 2013 Western Kentucky loss, it served as the catalyst to inspire me to try and write my first Fan Post. When drinking copious amounts of bourbon ceases to help, blogging is the last remaining fix.
It's been a long road back. UK still has it's flaws, isn't going to win the SEC East (spoiler!), but that doesn't change the fact that since the start of Stoops' second season UK sports an overall record of 8-8. The blowouts are becoming increasing less common; and unlike last season's fast start, UK has an equal record over better competition in 2015.
Team chemistry seems strong from our outsiders' perspectives [edit: I wrote this prior to the recent Boom Williams news]. Jesse Palmer and Brent Musberger both made a concerted effort to talk about how "confident" UK was during the game Saturday night, which suggests this was a Mark Stoops' buzzword in pregame media meetings. The funny thing: the team has displayed all the traits of a confident team this year. They don't wilt, and they continue to battle regardless of what the scoreboard reads.
Molding a program into your vision is something most coaches fail at than succeed doing. Even historically powerful programs struggle to build and maintain football programs, and they benefit from mega-wealthy donors and geographically advantageous recruiting. UK has had more hurdles.
Stats Like The...Offense?
The offense has actually played better than the defense in 3 of 4 games, while special teams has been positive and steady (amazing the solid ratings special teams get when they don't give up big plays, and then make one themselves every other game). These stats are adjusted for strength of opponent, and garbage-time stats. The raw stats say UK's offense is pretty much average nationally registering 5.62 yards/play. Interesting that the adjusted numbers contradict the raw data and some segments of public perception. The way I read it: UK's offense has put up average numbers against (overall) slightly above average defenses.
Briefly On the Offense
There was a lot to like offensively in this game, and some of it has already been covered elsewhere. What's interesting is the belief the offense has been close to having a breakout game for a while. Even at an individual level, a player like Jojo Kemp has quietly had a strong season.
Briefly On the Defense
It wasn't that surprising to see Missouri's offensive game plan. The 'Cats defensive strength is speed. The linebackers, in particular, have tremendous lateral speed. They are backed by a secondary that slowly continues to impress. Mizzou tried running right at them.
(As an aside, if there's been a theme to UK's defensive collapses this season it's been power-running followed by play-action passes towards the middle of the field. Those plays account for roughly 50% of the explosive plays UK has allowed this season. To be fair, I'm not sure what the national average is, so it's hard to know if this is a UK-specific problem or not.)
Mizzou moved from a "zone stretch" running team to a power-running team against UK. They regularly went four- wide, and then attempted power-run plays right at UK. They tried to sustain a short-passing attack against a defense that has eventually thwarted such attempts so far this season. The Tigers were efficient, they averaged 5 yards/play after all, but eventually UK's defense lived up to the "bend-don't-break" label. UK's defense continues to impress me while I instinctively wait for the other shoe to drop.
Mizzou's offensive personnel forced UK to play a 4-2-5 (or 2-4-5 if you're feeling pedantic) for most of the game. A defense that already has speed on the field, added even more by playing less nose tackle and one more defensive back. I like UK's chances in these situations this year against most teams, but especially against the quality of skill player Mizzou is fielding this year.
Let's take a look at some particular plays of note. Click on linked times below to watch video of the referenced play.
|Ryan Flannigan reads pulling guard and diagnoses play. Westry likewise reads the tight end and quickly supports. Physical, assignment football by both players here.
|UK in nickel with Forrest blitz off the edge. Denzil Ware fakes rush and runs with slot receiver suggesting his athleticism. UK in zone as Mizzou WR run shallow crossing route. Chris Westry is sitting in his zone and makes tackle. Again, Westry following his assignments.
|Denzil Ware beats offensive tackle with combo speed rush and chop technique. Registers first career sack.
|Mizzou would go 4 wide with very wide splits on several occasions of this game, and attempted to run the ball most times. This time, UK likely suspects and adds their nose tackle.
|UK in Cover 1. Good initial coverage all around, but Mizzou WR improvises, Maty Mauk notices, and the broken route is too much for Cody Quinn to recover. Touchdown Missouri. If you're UK, you might be inclined to blame Quinn, but there also needs to be a better pass rush.
|Patrick Towles asked Shannon Dawson to run the bootleg here even if that's not the textbook call. Dawson, somewhat surprisingly agreed, and Towles makes a great individual play; however, notice the touchdown block block guard Nick Haynes delivers while pulling against the defensive end. Huge play by the young guard.
|Ryan Flannigan looks to be assigned as Spy to Maty Mauk on this play. If Mauk had stayed in the pocket Flannigan probably would have as well, and would watch for him to scramble.
|UK goes 5 Wide on their own goal line. This shows a lot of trust in the linemen, Towles, and receivers. UK would do this again, close to the same spot, on the last drive of the first half. This isn't "conservative" play-calling.
|Mizzou is in man coverage, and the Jet motion pulls the attention of the cornerback who has the furthest outside receiver. The motion makes him forget about tight end CJ Conrad who was the previous outside receiver. The Mizzou linebacker also forgets that Conrad is now his man due to the motion. This is textbook example of how motion can confuse your opponent. Also, a great throw and great catch by Towles and Conrad.
|This is a designed play for CJ Conrad. UK ran the same play against Florida in the first half, but the Gators covered Conrad so Towles kept it on the bootleg. UK has tried to get Conrad the ball this season, but they need to be open before the ball gets thrown their way.
|This is great blocking by the linemen, and also both H-backs against some members of Missouri's second string defense. Jojo Kemp makes the most of their generosity. UK runs the same play to the opposite side two plays later for a 17 yard pick-upo.
|On Conrad's first career TD reception it would appear that UK runs four verticals against Mizzou's Cover 2 (two-deep safeties trying to cover four WR running deep). The play-action serves to freeze the linebackers which helps to open up the middle even more. I'd expect Conrad was Towles first read on this play given Mizzou's coverage and the addition of the play-action wrinkle.
There was a lot to like in this game. UK needs to build on this win, and continue to improve. This is a better team than a month ago, but can they repeat that feat and be a better team a month from now? If so, November sets up nicely.