We should all be thrilled right now. Right? Kentucky football is 5-1 at the midway point of the season!
Five. And. One.
It’s a record that most of us could have only dreamt about when we were watching Joker Phillips’ final season on the sidelines. Or when we watched the Wildcats struggle to beat MAC teams every week during most of the this century. Or when we would get ourselves up for a game against a team like Florida, only to see their backups playing most of the second half.
We have a quarterback who has a winning percentage the likes of which we have never seen at UK in our lifetimes. We have depth at nearly every position, a concept that is foreign to those who remember hoping that the “one guy” we had on defense wouldn’t get hurt, lest we have nobody worth bragging about actually on the field. Kentucky even has speed on both sides of the ball that can not only keep up with the big boys of the SEC, they can even beat them at times.
All that said...there is a feeling of disappointment among many in the fanbase, myself included. It’s a feeling that is rooted in a sense of “we should be playing so much better than we are” as we watch this team play. It is the realization by many that we are 5-1 because of our schedule, not necessarily because we are one of the best teams in the nation. It is seeing our team outplay Florida and lose, and then—in back-to-back weeks at home—struggle to beat a MAC team and one of the worst teams in a power-5 conference.
There are those who scoff at such feelings, and that’s your right. I will never tell someone not to enjoy where we are right now, because I remember sitting at home, listening to Tom Leach describe how great Tim Couch was, hearing the air-raid sirens going off....and knowing that we were losing to Florida or Tennessee by over twenty points. I remember seeing us trounced at home by Vanderbilt in front of a crowd smaller than what you might see at a random local free concert. If you want to view this team through Kentucky blue-tinted glasses, go for it. We’ve earned this, especially after all the crap we have taken from our rivals over the years. (Side note: as someone who lives in Louisville, I am enjoying the turn this season has taken quite a bit!)
However, I am here to explain why so many of us are not satisfied with simply having a 5-1 record. There are real problems facing the team that need to be addressed over the next two weeks—and others that shouldn’t even need to be addressed at all, yet somehow do. I am sure that many others will be able to add their own thoughts, but here are my personal reasons for being frustrated at the moment...
I am upset because we should have beaten Florida. The streak should be over. It continues today not because Florida outplayed us, not because someone like Tim Tebow was busy winning a Heisman or because Trey Burton scored six times on us. No, it continues because we twice—TWICE!!!!!—left a man wide open for a touchdown pass. Coming out of a timeout, both times. Nobody on the sidelines having the awareness to call a timeout, either time. It’s inexcusable, and yet....the streak lives on.
I am upset because of the silly miscues that continue to plague a team that has experience. I don’t just mean experience within the program, although that is the case, but experience with football, PERIOD. You learn in early stages of football to not let a man behind you in coverage when you’re the safety--and yet, Kentucky got burned for not one, not two, not three, but FOUR deep bombs on Saturday against Missouri. In fact, if Drew Lock isn’t hit on two other throws, he hits six of them. Mizzou had guys wide open deep at least eight times. We were fortunate to only pay four times. We also continue to take silly penalties such as not having seven men on the line of scrimmage, which took four points off the board. Again, you learn early on to ask the line judge, “am I good?” when you’re on the line. He will tell you. It’s not hard to do. And yet....we can’t do it.
I am upset because we do not capitalize on our opportunities when they are presented to us. When given the chance to go for the throat against teams, to seize the momentum that has swung our way by taking a shot downfield after a turnover....we call a run up the middle. Or we run a WR screen for five yards. Or we call some really odd play that won’t work against an aggressive defense, rather than one that will take advantage of the defenders wanting to make a big play to make up for the mistake their offensive cohorts just committed. We have left so many points on the field this season, and squandered the chance to fully claim momentum and kill the will of the other team, and yet....we continue to let our opponents stay in the game. This leads to injuries (remember, we lost Jordan Jones on the final play of the South Carolina game because we didn’t put the game away when we had the chance), wear and tear, and forces us to run plays we can’t save for bigger opponents.
I am upset because we have gotten too conservative in critical moments. This goes partly to what I just brought up, but late in the game we continue to run, run, run when it’s not working. Folks, I love Benny Snell. I really do. I think he is a tremendous back.
However, we’re six games in, and he’s not having the success he had last year. Whether that’s him, the offensive line, or not having Boom Williams to help out, I do not know. What I do know is this: numbers don’t lie. Here are Benny’s numbers last year, versus this year:
2016 — 186 carries, 1091 yds, 5.9 yards per carry
2017 — 126 carries, 523 yds, 4.2 yards per carry
The raw numbers show that he is not performing the same as last year. However, the raw numbers still make it appear he’s having a solid year. However, his numbers this year are being skewed by less than a dozen runs. For example, if you take away his 71 yard touchdown run against Mizzou, he rushed 19 times for 46 yards—or a measly 2.42 yards per carry. If you take away the biggest run from each game, here is the numbers for this year (as well as last year for comparison):
2016 — 175 carries, 835 yds, 4.77 yards per carry
2017 — 120 carries, 381 yds, 3.18 yards per carry
Those numbers are a drastic drop-off from last year. He’s not getting the big, punishing runs that he did last year, either. He has had only two carries this year over twelve yards; last year, he had close to twenty of them. It is time to stop asking him to go and seal the win for us, and allow Stephen Johnson to help ice the game. Otherwise, we are putting unfair pressure on the young running back, and on our tired defense, to try to see out the final minutes of the game. The offense did not earn a single first down in the 4th quarter against Eastern Michigan, and that is something that must change for this team to meet their potential.
That brings me to my final, and biggest, point of contention with what we have seen this season....Eddie Gran. Oh, Eddie. What an enigma you are, sir. One moment, you look like the offensive genius that so many of us believed you were—and still could be—upon your arrival. The next moment, we are all ready for you to be sat down and shown the basics of calling an offensive gameplan.
I gave Eddie a ton of credit last season, for recognizing what our strengths and weaknesses were when his pre-season plan got scrapped via the injury to Drew Barker. He changed the formations, he changed the focal point of the offense, and he helped guide us to a bowl game. I give him a lot of credit for that. All that said, I have a laundry list of things I would love to discuss with him, if I were given the chance:
Why do you not set up plays by running similar plays, prior to calling these cute plays that require lengthy setup, and require the defense to bite on an early action? If they haven’t seen the action already, why would they bite?
Why would you run Benny Snell in the wildcat, roll him to his LEFT, and then ask him to throw the ball down the middle of the field to CJ Conrad?
On that note....why does CJ Conrad only have nine (NINE!) catches through six games? Benny Snell threw one pass to him against Missouri. Stephen Johnson throw to him....never. He never threw to a tight-end who has NFL potential. That is unacceptable. He’s a monster. Find ways to get him the ball. It’s not that hard to do.
Why do we continue to run screen passes through the middle that require time to setup, when everyone with eyes can tell immediately by Johnson’s footwork that is going to be a screen pass? I can see it. Others can see it. Why can’t Eddie see it?
Why not let Stephen Johnson air it out some more? Look, I know some idiot said at the start of the season that Drew Barker likely gave us a better chance to win (that guy is the worst, let me tell you! Such an idiot!), but Johnson has been nothing short of terrific. He has only two interceptions in 155 attempts, and one of them—the pick against Mizzou—was not his fault, as the WR sat down in zone coverage and then began to run again just as Johnson threw it to him. He has shown yet again that he can hit the deep route, and he has scored nine touchdowns through the air, with another two on the ground. In fact, why not let him run more as well? The few times he has kept it on the read option, he has often gone for at least five yards—and there have been many times he has handed off despite the contain man crashing down. This would serve two purposes--it would take pressure off of Snell, and it would keep the LBs honest, which would help open some more room for him to run.
I guess, to sum it up, my reason for being upset with Gran is that he is not keeping things simple. He is trying too hard to be “creative” in his play-calling. Keep it simple, Eddie—run more play-action when the defense crashes the run, find ways to get your playmakers open and get CJ Conrad and Lynn Bowden the ball in space, and trust in Stephen Johnson a bit more. Oh, and no more Wildcat unless Bowden is the one taking the snap.
Ok. I think that explains it. I know this has been a bit long, but c’mon--it’s a bye week. It’s Big Blue Madness week. We can only read about basketball so much this week before it becomes repetitive. This is the perfect time for us to discuss what ails us, while still appreciating what he have done.
I am very thrilled with the play of He15man, the Blitz Brothers, Lynn Bowden, and others. I am happy to see guys like Blake Bone, so hyped when he arrived and yet forgotten, getting moments to shine. I am elated to see our guys win games that we would have always lost in the past, and to see the mentality shift from “here comes the collapse” to celebrating wins.
We are one win from a bowl game sitting at 5-1, and I will take that any day. Looking ahead, we have five games that we could arguably win still to come, and I want us to win them. This could be the year that the program finally turns the corner. That is why I want to see the things listed above get addressed. My biggest fear is that, if the coaching staff does not find ways to fix the problems that have plagued us so far this season, we could just as easily match our 5-1 start with a 1-5 finish.
We have always wanted to be a bigger program on the national stage. If Kentucky can improve on just a few things, this could be the year that makes that happen.