Saturday’s result was pleasing. For the fifth time this season the Kentucky Wildcats defied Vegas, leaving some bettors with lighter wallets to buy hankerchiefs with in order to wipe egg off their face. For two weeks in a row, UK controlled long portions of the game, and the final score wasn’t indicative of the day’s proceedings.
Thankfully, in Columbia last minute drama was not needed to escape with a victory. This Kentucky team began the season playing poorly, they’ve improved, now there are many of them buying-in, and they have a plan.
The following are some thoughts that occurred to me after the Missouri game.
Fly In The Ointment
Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: Kentucky is not beating good teams. UK’s SEC victories come against teams with a combined record of 10-14 overall and a conference record of 3-11. Nonetheless, the improvement is evident in the newfound consistency if nothing else.
Mark Stoops’ teams in Lexington have always beaten the teams they should beat, and aside from the Southern Mississippi game, they’ve continued to do so this season. Kentucky went 4-1 in its “swing games” this season, and would have gone 5-0 if not for a second half collapse against Southern Miss.
Next week is a match-up against a Georgia team that is 4-4 and 2-4 in the SEC. This is another team that UK should beat. Similar to the teams of the last two weeks, UK is facing a team that has struggled and is operating without momentum.
The odds are good Kentucky can get it done again. These are heady times.
Winning In 2016 Is Imperative for 2017
There’s nothing wrong feasting on under-matched opponents. A requisite for creating a winning culture is beating the teams you should beat. All week we read stories of players putting in more work in the film room, and running drills after practice. They are hungry, confident, and focused. The game-to-game improvement shows this attitude is carrying over to practice during the week.
At this point, it’s a feedback loop of success.
It cannot be understated how important this year’s success is to next season. As previously stated, UK returns 38 of the 44 two-deep on both sides of the ball (assuming Boom Williams doesn’t leave for the NFL early). There are only 11 seniors on the entire roster.
Next season holds promise, but it holds even more if the team learns how to win in 2016. That’s why making a bowl game was so important for this season. UK returns both talent and experience next season, but now it’s poised to return a mentally tough team that knows what kind of preparation is required to win ball games. Experience and athleticism can only get you so far without the proper mentality.
Blocking Is A Team Effort
A lot of .html has already been devoted to the improvement of UK’s offensive line. What they still lack in terms of pass protection at times, they more than make up for being run-blocking machines. They are the stuff of Lovecraftian nightmares.
But the entire team - not just the offensive line - is blocking well for the running backs. One example, that Scott Charlton was kind enough to make a clip of for me, is below:
What stands out to me in this clip is the presnap communication, and then the elusive fundamental of blocking that follows.
At the 16 second mark, Ryan Timmons points out the nickel back aligned over him is showing blitz. He’s pointing him out to Stephen Johnson and CJ Conrad. He points him out again at the 23 second mark. He’s doing this because in UK’s zone blocking scheme, Conrad would normally block down or hit the inside line backer, but a blitzing nickel back changes his blocking assignment.
Meanwhile, Nick Haynes (#68) pulls from his left guard position, and smashes into the inside linebacker. Conrad and Haynes create a chasm to run through. 20 yards downfield receiver Tavin Richardson continues to block his defensive back purchasing even more yardage.
Blocking is a team effort. Another play I’d like to highlight is towards the end of the third quarter:
This play is a run-pass option (RPO). The give away is the receivers are running bubble screens on both sides. Johnson is reading the defensive end who runs upfield, which means Johnson should hand the ball off to Benny Snell. The left side of the offensive line destroys their defensive counterparts, but right tackle George Asafo-Adjei is the real gem. He engages a linebacker, and then pivots all the way around him to seal him off from the ball. You can see it again on the replay. This is a play that forces NFL scouts to take notice.
UK essentially stuck to its base plays, didn’t show anything new for the most part, and still ran for 380 yards on Saturday. Missouri’s run defense hasn’t been good all season, but that is still impressive.
The Secondary Held Missouri In Check
The defensive improvement has been most evident in the front seven. For the second game in a row, Kentucky did not allow a first down in the first quarter. Missed tackles have dropped from averaging 17 per game in the first three weeks of the season to 8 per game in the last month. The team is allowing 4.5 yards per rush which is near the middle of the pack in the SEC. Jordan Jones is tallying fewer tackles per game, and I’d argue that’s a very good thing as his teammates are doing more.
The secondary is also playing better, and is doing so without an above average pass-rush. Only twice this season has it allowed more than 300 passing yards. Heading into the game at Missouri, they were facing one of their biggest tests, and the secondary played very well against a Big 12-style offense predicated on spreading teams out and using pace.
Despite giving up a late 57 yard touchdown pass, UK’s secondary held Missouri’s aerial attack to 229 yards. For comparison’s sake, the Tigers threw for 216 yards against LSU and 236 against Florida. Those two secondaries are consider to be among the five best in the country.
A Well-Coached Team
There are several reasons to label this a well-coached team. The in-season turnaround is Exhibit A, but other examples spring to mind. Kentucky has only committed 35 penalties this entire season which is second in the SEC. In this aspect, Kentucky is not a team that beats itself; however, the 20 turnovers - 12 fumbles and eight interceptions - continue to be an issue, but UK only lost 10 fumbles in 2014 and 2015 combined. Some of this is karma evening things out. UK couldn’t fall on an oblong ball bouncing around first forever.
Another example is how the coaches have also adjusted to their team. They’ve done this in the past, but this year it’s succeeding for a variety of reasons. One aspect of this is the Wildcat package. Teams know that UK does not like to throw out of the formation, and as a result they have begun cheating more defenders into the box.
To counter against Missouri, UK unveiled a Trips formation out of Wildcat to draw three defenders out of the box. Football is a numbers game, and in this case they have seven blockers versus eight defenders in the box. UK will take that all day given how efficiently they block and their slippery running backs.
I feared after the South Carolina game that UK’s one-dimensional offense would be an issue going forward. Teams would quickly adjust, and the onus would be on the quarterback to open up the field. Yet, UK is so good running the ball that it’s going to get its yardage without an explosive passing attack. As the ancient Greeks would say, “The fox knows many tricks, but the hedgehog knows one good one.”
Boom and Snell are going to put up yuuuge numbers thanks to their teammates. If Stephen Johnson can maintain a quarterback rating of 150 that will help keep UK’s offense balanced and efficient. Also, less fumbling...please?