Kentucky’s victory over Austin Peay turned into a 49-13 rout, but the first seventeen minutes or so were hair-pulling. The tightness wasn’t in the secondary that came up with two important interceptions during that dreadful spell. In fact, it was pretty clear, even early on, that if this were a 7-on-7 passing league game, Austin Peay would have had trouble competing.
I think after Austin Peay’s second successful drive it was the front seven that looked shell-shocked. The defense was losing multiple one-on-one battles per play in the front seven indicating a lack of effort. Just as troubling was the lack of execution in terms of gap integrity.
They were playing weaker foe, and too many players were trying to make “hero plays”. This is reminiscent of the 2014 game against Ohio as detailed in the very first Upon Further Review here. Let’s run through some examples from just the first series that would be a theme for the first 17 minutes of play.
The first example is from the very first play of the game. Jordan Jones rushes the quarterback JaVaughn Craig on a roll-out when he sees a gap open. That’s all well and good but Jones (yellow box) comes in out of control, and misses the tackle. The quarterback, now feeling the heat, naturally scrambles to his right where (usually technically sound) Adrian Middleton has left his gap to chase the quarterback, rather than pursue through his assigned gap. The result is a 20 yard quarterback scramble after a Denzil Ware missed tackle.
The very next play is more of the same. Austin Peay runs a zone read, UK over-pursues, and more yardage is gained.
The play starts off well. Courtney Miggins (yellow) is assigned the running back on the zone read, and does as he is suppose to and follows his assignment. UK, in a nickel package here, has Marcus McWilson (blue) at the line of scrimmage and he is assigned the quarterback. He is suppose to slow-play him (i.e. not attack him immediately) in order to allow the defense to time to get to the ball in a swarm. Finally, Derrick Baity (red) is assigned the pitch back. So far, so very good.
But once again, the play breaks down due to back-side gap integrity and missed tackles. Naquez Pringle (green) over-pursues the ball, and Ware (purple) misses the tackle.
The third example worth illustrating is on a zone read hand-off to the running back.
Once again, Miggins (yellow) is left unblocked and is reading the quarterback. He is assigned the running back on 2nd-and-14, but the Austin Peay quarterback makes the wrong read and hands it off when he should have kept it as Miggins was going after the running back. Miggins is too slow to make the tackle in the backfield.
The problem is compounded as Jones (purple) has over-pursued the ball again, and has gotten caught up in the wash. The Austin Peay player (red) doesn’t know who to block since his guy Jones - the third-leading tackler in the SEC - is nowhere to be found. He’s literally looking around for him.
The final example comes on 4th-and-2 on the opening drive. Like the first play of the game, Austin Peay goes for a quarterback roll-out, but this time towards the boundary-side where he has a shallow route running towards the first down marker, and two deeper routes hoping to pull defenders away from the underneath route. And once again, UK defends the routes well, but...
UK’s defenders on the back-side over-pursue putting effort over thinking when there must be a balance between the two. Miggins (red), who has played assignment football to this point, is already in bad shape here. He’s already cheating into another player’s gap. The quarterback will feel Denzil Ware’s pressure coming from his back side, and will run right towards Miggins’ vacated gap once he feels Ware breathing on his neck for the easy first down.
All of this just goes to illustrate that eight or nine guys can be doing exactly what they are suppose to do, but if a few aren’t, a defense goes from allowing 350 yards per game to 500 yards per game pretty quickly.
Why This Happens To Matter Now
UK’s defense would eventually settle down, and play better football. Yet, these lessons are important now, because this Saturday UK faces the mobile quarterback wrecking ball that is Lamar Jackson. Even if UK plays disciplined Saturday, Jackson is still good enough to make defenders miss. If UK doesn’t play disciplined, like last year’s Governer’s Cup, we already know Jackson will run for all of the yards.
Looking at the bright side, maybe it was a good time for the defense to make these mistakes Saturday. To beat Louisville will require a tremendous defensive performance. UofL likes to run the zone read, and these breakdowns will be useful in the film room this week to show what a freshman FCS quarterback is capable of doing against poor execution. Things could be even worse for UK versus UofL’s players, and their Heisman front-running quarterback.
Bowl Season Is Weird Season...In Ways Most Don’t Expect
Making a bowl game is terrific, but there are some narratives I’d like to dispel. Making the post-season is a great thing for most teams. Many of UK’s back-ups will get a disproportionate share of practice reps, there might be more time spent in the weight room, and everyone will be in a good mood. In several ways, it’ll be a relaxing time.
The players and coaches will be feted on campus, and then when they show up to their bowl game destination, they’ll be involved with a variety of sponsor activities. The next few weeks will be the equivalent of Casual Fridays culminating in a half-day holiday party at the end in the parlance of we office stiffs.
Now I, for one, do not buy into thinking the extra practice time matters much. You’re going to hear it from all sources of media and probably also the coaches. It’s best to ignore this. When my teams would make a deep playoff run, the extra practice time didn’t translate to better fundamentals and skills when the next season started. Skills and fundamentals atrophy over time. A few extra weeks of practice have at most a marginal benefit, and that’s being charitable.
Now I, for one, do buy that making the post-season is important because it means the players are learning how to win. Just like any human being, when hard work is rewarded, the incentive is there for more hard work in the future. Players begin practicing and playing with daily intensity or “edge” as Mark Stoops says. That’s the real gift as demonstrated when everything started off going wrong against Austin Peay. UK just kept working and they bounced back.
This mental toughness doesn’t atrophy over time as easily. When character gets shaped it tends to stay. If the team practices better in the spring, or the early days of camp, it will be because mentally this program has taken a step forward, and not because they ran extra drills in December.
Bowl Games Are Nothing Like The Regular Season
People love narratives so when Conference X goes 1-5 in bowl games it means that conference was a fraud; likewise, if Conference Y goes 5-1 it naturally means that conference was great in 2016. This isn’t exactly true, if at all.
Whether or not UK beats UofL, bowl games universally have weird settings. They are played weeks after teams have peaked, they take place on a neutral site, and play in front of a potentially empty stadium in sometimes adverse weather conditions.
In many ways, bowls are just exhibition games. That’s without even mentioning that some coaching staffs are engaged more than others. Many head coaches and their staffs are using December to job-hunt and recruit while also trying to prepare their teams. It should go without saying that in some cases, the first two in that list take priority over the third.
Team motivation is key in this setting, and UK fans know that just as good as any fan base. UK wasn’t as good as Clemson in the 2007 Music City Bowl, but the ‘Cats dominated them because they were the hungry team excited to be playing in Nashville. That Clemson team was 7-1 before losing three of its last four regular season games. It didn’t want to be there, and UK took full advantage.
In 2009, UK once again faced Clemson in the Music City Bowl. That Clemson team had only lost to rival South Carolina and 12th ranked Georgia Tech (in the ACC Championship) in the months of October and November. Kentucky - perhaps hungover from the triple overtime lost to Tennessee, or maybe just feeling like the Music City Bowl was beneath them after playing in it three times in four years - came out flat and Clemson beat them in a game that was never in doubt after UK’s opening drive touchdown.
Once again, motivation is key for a bowl win. Match-ups are important, as well as talent and coaching, but this UK team could beat Houston in the Liberty Bowl if the Cougars don’t want to be there.
That doesn’t mean UK is a better team than Houston. It just means bowl season is weird, and not at all like the regular season.