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Kentucky’s Aerial Attack In TaxSlayer Bowl

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Kentucky’s running game has gotten most of the attention, but it’s the passing attack versus Georgia Tech that should prove decisive.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The TaxSlayer Bowl features two teams particularly adept at running the ball against two defenses not particularly well-suited to stopping it. A likely scenario is a methodical grinding down of the clock in a slow game of attrition. The game would appear poised to be a sacrifice to the god Barry Switzer and his wishbone offense.

At the same time, Kentucky does have a distinct edge throwing the ball against Georgia Tech and the advantage must be exploited. Whether it’s a scenario involving Kentucky playing catch-up late in the game, or big passing plays allowing UK to get an early lead on a ball-control offense, the passing game can be decisive.

Not Consistent But Explosive

Kentucky’s aerial attack is largely predicated on explosive passing plays. Over the season, UK completed 27 passes of 25 yards or more while only having a completion percentage of 54%. The amount of big passing plays ranks Kentucky 6th in the SEC, but the low completion percentage puts the ‘Cats squarely in 11th place. For most of the season, UK was deep ball or no-ball.

Quarterback Stephen Johnson naturally throws a good deep ball, but is still developing touch on intermediate throws, but since UK is a good running team the coaches had the luxury of substituting the run for the pass on intermediate downs and distances.

A pass on first down was a signal to keep to the defense to play them honest. If you are going to load the box, then we have faith in our receivers and quarterbacks to make you pay for it. If the ‘Cats threw the ball on first down, and it resulted in an incompletion, it was not uncommon to see them line up in Wildcat on second down in the hopes of getting a more manageable third down.

...But Definitive Improvement Late

The running game was strong enough in 2016 that the passing attack only needed to be a credible threat. UK’s passing offense had a median rating of 149 in the last half of the season - despite terrible passing games against Georgia and Tennessee - which is a high enough rating for Kentucky to be at the top of the SEC. Three of the last five games Stephen Johnson had a completion percentage of approximately 60%.

A small sample size, to be sure, but telling how much better the passing game was performing by season’s end. The question is whether it’s atrophied or improved in the last month.

The Supporting Cast

Receivers often get a bad rap. Their failings are often more public than their teammates. You drop an open pass, and the entire stadium knows you messed up, as opposed to a lineman not following their assignment. Then, the Jumbotron shows the replay and everyone gets to relive it.

Having said that, the receivers fared better in 2016 than 2015. Garret Johnson’s catch rate increased by 5%, and his success rate increased by 3% compared to last season. Jeff Badet’s catch rate remained at 60% while increasing his success rate by 5% and having more targets. Ryan Timmons had his best season since his freshman year with a catch rate of 66% (50% in 2015), and a success rate of 47% (25% in 2015). CJ Conrad had a lower catch rate and success rate, but his target rate doubled, and he caught four touchdowns as opposed to one.

Kentucky’s second best receiver Dorian Baker was injured for half of the season, but this unit still improved in 2016 thanks in large part to higher catch rates across the board.

Now, To The Numbers

How much UK’s passing game improved this season is pretty meaningless in a vacuum. To understand the impact on the game, we must compare UK’s “advanced” stats to the opponent. The numbers below come from S&P+.

Passing Game Match-Up

Variables Georgia Tech Defense Kentucky Offense
Variables Georgia Tech Defense Kentucky Offense
S&P+ Passing 85 65
S&P+ Passing Success Rate 117 114
S&P+ Passing Explosiveness 9 5
Passing Downs S&P+ 90 51
Passing Downs Success Rate 96 101
Passing Downs Explosiveness 32 9
Passing Downs Sack Rate 120 98

Georgia Tech does not have a great passing defense. They do not feature an aggressive pass-rush, and their below average ability to stop the run opens up passing lanes further. They are pretty good about preventing explosive plays on passing downs, but you can see that figure rises when filtered out for actual passing downs.

Given that Georgia Tech’s defensive line will not pressure Kentucky consistently, the ‘Cats will have more time for the receivers to get open. Kentucky is rated in the triple digits in terms of Passing Downs Success Rate, but this was largely against competition more adept at rushing the passer. Even then, UofL had the 38th best passing down success rate, but Kentucky still torched them for 352 passing yards.

Missouri has the nearest comparison to Georgia Tech with a Passing Down Success Rate of 95th, and while UK only threw for 200 yards in that game, the ‘Cats had a whopping completion percentage of 63%. That also was a game when UK ran the ball 59 times for 377 yards, and so didn’t need to pass the ball.

Georgia Tech’s Scheme

On passing downs that are long or medium, Georgia Tech tends to play with two deep safeties in a 4-2-5 look. They are trying to avoid getting beat deep, and so will keep everything in front of them. This is why they allow such a low explosive pass rate, and it makes sense paired with their offense. They don’t have the type of offense to quickly rattle off scores on most occasions, so they need their defense to limit the other team’s offensive possessions as much as possible.

In the image below, it is 2nd-and-8 and Georgia Tech’s corners and field side safety are lining up on the first down marker.

At the same time, notice how much space the field side nickel and corner back are given their receivers. On 2nd-and-8, a team could throw a quick pass, and hope to pick-up a three or four yards setting up a 3rd-and-short. I could point out that UK would probably run the ball against a five man box, but that would be cheating for the purposes of this post.

While playing soft does often prevent big plays, the Yellow Jackets had the worst third down percentage in the ACC allowing conversion 50% of the time. This tells me underneath routes will be open, especially if stress is put on linebackers versus UK’s slots and tight ends on underneath routes. Yet, intermediate throws were not Stephen Johnson’s forte for most of the season. Luckily, there may be a way to engineer Georgia Tech into more favorable match-ups.

“If You Don’t Like What’s Being Said, Change The Conversation”

Georgia Tech, like most teams, does turn to tighter coverages in short yardage situations. This takes them away from their core strategy of using soft coverage to prevent big plays. Against man coverage or three deep zones, UK increases it’s ability to beat the Yellow Jackets with the deep ball. Those throws also just so happen to play into Stephen Johnson’s strengths.

It’s 2nd-and-3 from midfield, and Georgia Tech turns to a tighter coverage with a single safety floating deep. Given the free release by the corners, I believe this is Cover 3.

This is how it plays out:

Virginia Tech throws the deep ball once they see there’s only one safety deep, and has a touchdown if not for the receiver dropping the ball. I suspect we will see UK attempt to spread the field on short distance situations and take several shots deep.

There are other ways to attack softer zones, and Georgia Tech’s would appear to play a heavy dose of Cover 4 going by the Virginia Tech and Georgia games. The first is running four vertical routes. With four receivers going deep they essentially turn the secondary into playing man coverage as the corners, nickel, and one safety must cover a man.

Other ways, in short, involve picking on the linebackers who are covering the underneath zones while the defensive backs patrol the deep zones. Jeff Badet and Dorian Baker could run deep routes along their respective sidelines, drawing their assigned cornerbacks deep, while the slot receivers like Ryan Timmons, CJ Conrad, and Garret Johnson run from the interior to the sideline in the zones vacated by the cornerbacks chasing Baker and Badet. Slower linebackers will be forced to chase Timmons, Conard, and Johnson to the sideline. This could lead to quick 7-10 yard pick-ups.

Ignore the top row, but this would look something like the two bottom plays here:

Any sort of combination that involves putting stress on the linebackers would be in play. Force the safeties and corners to follow receivers running on deep routes, and then proceed to pick on the slow guys. Here’s more information if you’re interested.

Conclusion

Kentucky’s offense will be balanced, and the run game will probably get its yards and a lot of merit; however, the passing game is what could prove decisive. For UK to negate Georgia Tech’s offense it must score quickly, putting the onus on a ball-control offense to play catch-up. Connecting on quick score passing strikes, and keeping the chains moving with intermediate throws, is a good way to do just that.