The Kentucky Wildcats enter their back-six sporting a record of 3-3. Their next three opponents have a combined record of 8-8, and two of the games are in Commonwealth Stadium. The month of October is extremely important.
The defense's improvement has been previously chronicled, and again against Vanderbilt it played well aside from the final possession that saw you scour your medicine cabinet for Xanax. At the end of the day, the defense did not allow an offensive touchdown, and only allowed 81 total yards at halftime. Not bad even considering the Commodore aren't strong offensively.
The offense is also improving but perhaps in not as many ways as the defense. The passing game appears to have taken a step back against SEC competition, but the rushing attack is better than ever. Let's examine.
The Offensive Line
First, the stats. S&P+ ranks UK as the 16th best rushing offense in the country (it finished last season ranked 65th). What's interesting is that last year's explosive ranking (65th) is pretty much the same as this year's (62nd). This means the running game has improved immensely largely based on being more consistent and relying less on big plays. Further evidence is the "Stuff Rate" has dropped 5% which translates to a fall in the rankings from 113th in the country in 2015 to being 59th in 2016. That's great!
Make no mistake; the offensive line deserves a great deal of credit for this improvement. It takes years to develop linemen, and UK is beginning to reap the benefits at least on the interior where Jon Toth, Nick Haynes, and Ramsey Meyers each have two plus years of starting experience. Backing them up are talented youngsters like Bunchie Stallings, Logan Stenberg, and George Asafo-Adjei. Cole Mosier was in part moved to tackle this season, because he was too good not to get on the field. Same with Stallings whose primary position is center.
The numbers provide one context, but what about another? Perhaps the best interior defensive lineman in the country, Alabama's Jonathan Allen, said the game against Kentucky was "That's probably one of the most physical games I've played since I was in college." It's one thing when the numbers reflect progress, but it's another thing to receive praise from your opponents.
Alas, it's not all good news. The line has struggled on passing downs, and has taken a step back from last season. This season UK's adjusted sack rate is ranked 107th in the country, but last season that same ranking was 82nd. UK is allowing a sack on 16% of all passing downs, while last season it was 8%.
UK did not allow a sack against Vanderbilt, but has not fared well against SEC competition in this metric. Playing Alabama and Florida will boost those numbers some, but they both went above their season averages versus UK as did South Carolina.
In any case, the offensive tackles have to continue to improve, and UK's coaches will have to scheme around deficiencies. This may mean leaving CJ Conrad or a running back in the backfield to help with pass protection, or have the receivers run shorter routes. Both those options limited the offense's ability to make big plays, which is traditionally needed on passing downs.
The Running Backs
The running backs are the strength of the team for the second consecutive season. Boom Williams and Benjamin Snell Jr both have opportunity rates of 49%. Which is the percentage of carries the offensive line produces at least five yards for the ball carrier. (this stat could just as easily be in the offensive line section). Williams also produces highlight yards on 7% of his opportunities. Snell and Jojo Kemp both hover around 3.5%.
Boom is averaging seven yards per carry while Snell is averaging 5.6 yards. Given that this offense has been one dimensional the last few weeks, it's all the more impressive that UK has two running backs in the SEC's top fifteen in terms of yards per carry. They'd both rank even higher on the list after filtering out anyone with fewer than 40 carries.
The Receivers and Tight Ends
I want to focus on this group more in a future post, so I will keep this brief today. This unit has improved from last season, and it's led by Garrett Johnson who leads the team with a target rate of 25%, and a catch rate of 65%. Both of those numbers would comfortably have put him above the 50 percentile last season, and show his improvement.
CJ Conrad actually has the highest catch rate of 67%, but a target rate of only 15% suggesting he should get more targets. I think its been odd quirks that have decreased his target rate to date, as he's clearly used in the Run Pass Option plays but if the defense takes him away, the ball is going elsewhere. He's clearly a weapon UK tries to exploit in the red zone on play-action. Conrad continues to impress with his hands, but also his blocking abilities.
The biggest surprise may be Ryan Timmons. The nearly forgotten about senior is having a great season. He only has seven catches, but he's made them all count with a catch rate of 78% and a success rate of 78%. He moves the chains when he gets his hands on the ball.
Dorian Baker hopefully makes an impact in the next few weeks as he returns from injury. Jeff Badet hopefully makes an impact too. Badet only has 10 catches, with a low 50% catch rate, and a lower success rate of 35%. For the player getting the second most targets on the team, Badet must make more plays.
It's no secret that Kentucky's game plan is to manage the offense to Stephen Johnson's strengths. This means more RPOs that allow him to take what the defense gives him. Johnson is still a little green, and it shows as his fundamentals breakdown when he gets under pressure. According to Eddie Gran, Vanderbilt used new coverages against Johnson which threw him off a bit in that game. Darin Hinshaw will earn his salary getting Johnson ready for the rest of the season. They’ll certainly have to adapt the offense to his strengths.
ESPN Stats & Information’s database shows that Johnson is 44-for-59 (75%) for 421 yards and three touchdowns on throws covering 10 yards or less in the air. On passes 11 yards or longer, Johnson is 8-for-31 (26%) for 207 yards and two interceptions.
The one area that is killing the offense, and it's been mostly the fault of the quarterbacks, are turnovers. The team has committed 16 turnovers in this season which is far more than previous ones. Of those 16 turnovers, 12 of them came from the quarterbacks. Johnson has actually had six fumbles this season but luckily was able to recover three of those. Drew Barker lost two fumbles prior to injury and threw five interceptions. Johnson has added two interceptions of his own.
At the moment, UK on average finishes games with one more turnover than its opponent. That must change for UK to get to six wins, and so far that number is mostly due to the quarterbacks not taking care of the ball.