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Sideline to Sideline: UK’s Bye Week Breakdown

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Examining UK’s offensive production and execution through the first 5 weeks of the season.

Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

Would I be considered negative if I think the wheels have fallen off or would I be considered crazy to think everything is fine and assume things will get fixed?

Before we tackle that, let’s state the obvious, this bye week could not have come at a better time for Kentucky. Big Blue has a bruised ego, banged up roster, and boat loads of uncertainty about how the rest of its season will play out.

Ever since that stuffed fourth down try to open the 4th quarter against Florida, the mojo around this Kentucky team has not been the same. For a program known for snakebit moments and deflating defeats, the last three games have been a slow, foreseeable burn.

I mean when you have more turnovers than touchdowns over the last three weeks, you don’t need someone like to me tell you the outlook is no so good for the Cats.

Each passing game since Wilson went down with his season-ending injury, UK’s overall offensive success rate has precipitously declined from 46.1% against Florida to 35.7% against Mississippi State to the lousy 22.6% clip against the Gamecocks Saturday night. During this span, UK has the SEC’s fourth worst rushing success rate with only Vanderbilt being less successful through the air on a per snap basis.

As it stands right now, Kentucky has the conference’s second worst yards per play clip, second worst sack rate, second highest average distance to gain, third worst Havoc play allowed rate, and the third worst offensive success rate.

The SEC’s most successful offenses per Success Rate Weeks 1-5

Fair or not, Sawyer Smith has received the bulk of the criticism. It is only natural to point fingers at the most important position on the field with such an on-field drop off. On the surface, UK’s offense was more balanced and potent in the short span when Terry Wilson was healthy. While he still left plays on the field and was one of the more inaccurate downfield passers in the SEC, there was no denying the X-factor Wilson brought to the table with his athleticism.

Despite about 3 quarters of good play, Smith himself has not been 100% since filling in for Wilson. Against Florida, Smith seemingly hurt his wrist while tackling an interceptor. Against Mississippi State, his shoulder got dinged up. Neither are ideal ailments for someone who has been asked to sling the pill 108 times in three weeks while mostly playing from behind. Only Texas A&M has a higher pass rate over the last month than the Wildcats.

Even with the rocky play perhaps accentuated by injury, this staff not only kept doubling down on Smith to remain the starting quarterback but also kept asking him to carry the load for a struggling unit.

Schematically, UK’s three most called pass concepts since Smith has taken over as starter have been Shot Variations, All Verts, and Switch Variations all of which are deep passing concepts. You might have noticed that few have worked out over the course of this past month.

On the short spectrum of the simple plays, Smith’s success rate is 66.7% on All Curl patterns as well as Curl+Flat variations with a 50% clip on Sticks. All three of UK’s Utah passes in this span have worked out well. Still, the Cats have lived behind the chains and its short passing game quickly became obsolete despite some production.

But attempting to force feeding Lynn Bowden for yard after catch opportunities and frequently trying throws deep made an already predictable passing unit more heavy-handed.

UK’s dropback passing game with Sawyer Smith

Smith has the highest average distance to gain and average depth of target on his pass attempts within the SEC through 5 weeks of play. Over a fifth of his attempts have traveled 20 or more yards in the air — the only SEC starter to do so. He has utilized play action at the lowest rate in the conference for any passer with at least 30 throws.

Right now, no SEC quarterback has a higher interceptable pass rate or uncatchable pass rate. No SEC quarterback has a lower passing success rate. No SEC quarterback has a lower depth adjusted accuracy percentage. No one. Perhaps not shocking due to the fact Smith is also dead last in the good, old-fashioned completion percentage metric.

Sawyer Smith’s pass chart Weeks 3-5

It just goes to show how little faith there is in the alternative of Bowden in the backfield or the collegiate debut of Walker Wood by this staff. But things could change in that regard.

Lynn Bowden remains the SEC’s most targeted player. As an underclassman, Bowden was primarily used as a screen outlet. This year, he is getting vertical more and more out of necessity for someone to make a play for this offense. His average depth of target is currently 11.86 compared to 7.08 last season.

Never a truly efficient outlet, Bowden is among the SEC’s bottom 5 in receiving success rate and possesses the second highest drop rate.

Lynn Bowden’s 2019 Target Chart

This offense is extremely thirsty for someone else to take attention away from Bowden. If all a defense has to do is limit Lynn’s explosiveness and squash the run game, UK is a fairly easy offense to slow down as we have seen. Plus if Bowden will be the full-time Randall Cobb-esque quarterback option, someone will have to emerge as the top receiving option for him.

Ahmad Wagner remains limited in targets and production. Like the rest of UK’s top targets, his average depth of target is on the higher side at 15.32 - currently a top 5 mark in the SEC. While leading the conference in yards per target a couple of weeks back, having a poor catch rate has hurt his numbers as of late. Still, he is the only Cat catcher with a success rate over 50%.

Wagner is currently being used like Ole Miss used DK Metcalf last season before his season was lost — primarily as an up-and-down vertical threat running loads of streaks, fades, curls, and comebacks. Being rather lumbering in his route running, I don’t know if he is capable of going over the middle, but this offense might need him to be more versatile moving forward.

Ahmad Wagner’s 2019 Target Chart

Josh Ali has seemingly been chosen to be the third option in the passing game. He has the second most targets but has been the worst option through the air in the entire conference. It’s hard to be effective when the ball fails to reach its intended target. No target has a lower catch rate or success rate with at least 20 targets despite only having a single drop.

His degree of difficulty is often higher than any other outlet as his average yards to gain on targets is — you guessed it — the highest in the conference. Ali averages 12.68 yards to gain per target. Auburn’s Seth Williams is the only other player in the SEC with a clip above 9.9.

Josh Ali’s 2019 Target Chart

For so much offseason noise about UK having its tight ends be involved in the passing game, Justin Riggs’ and Keaton Upshaw’s combined numbers are about the same production CJ Conrad gave this offense last year. The tight end tandem’s target shares combine to account for 14.4% of UK’s targets, 12.6% of passing yards, but only a 41.7% success rate. Conrad alone accounted for 13% of targets, 15.3% of passing yards and 60% success rate. I hate to keep beating a point into the ground, but it’s easier for targets to be more successful the more often they see catchable balls.

Justin Riggs and Keaton Upshaw’s combined 2019 Target Chart

Still, failing to produce consistently when dropping back to pass is only one piece to this infuriating enigma that is this Kentucky team right now.

As aforementioned, UK’s rushing efficiency has fallen off a cliff once the Cats opted to steer towards a more pass-happy modus operandi. With a pass game that receives little to no respect, opposing defenses have been aggressive taking away UK’s run game.

Having Wilson as a threat to run was a big part of this offense’s preseason plans. But at first, only a few designed runs would be thrown to the wayside with Smith as signal caller.

However with Smith banged up, Kentucky has opted to call less read options each passing week out of their normal sets. UK called 17 reads/RPOs against Florida and Miss State, but only called 10 against South Carolina where Smith could potentially run the rock. While he had six designed runs off reads for him against the Gators, he hasn’t had a single one the past two weeks. The only time he has pulled the read has been when he has attempted a RPO throw.

While not as mobile as Wilson, completely getting rid of their quarterback’s threat to run has allowed teams to single out and eliminate other running backs. With less than spectacular talent, UK’s run game often plays the numbers games with formationally rather than unique play designs.

Instead of offering variety, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran chose to keep leaning on his core zone run plays. Since Wilson’s injury, two-thirds of UK’s designed rushing calls have either been inside split zones or inside slam read options.

UK’s run calls Weeks 3-5

Their backs have still averaged 2.97 yards before contact on the year. The last 3 threes games have seen UK’s carriers have put up a 2.72 clip which is nearly a third of a yard better than the SEC average of backs with at least 20 designed carries. While the Cats are about average on a per carry basis, they have struggled running behind Logan Stenberg who is arguably their best run blocker.

UK’s 2019 rush matrix Weeks 1-5

With a rather straightforward ground game, UK has been that much easier to stop. Neither of the concepts above have a success rate north of 41% the last three weeks. Both AJ Rose and Kavosiey Smoke currently sit within the bottom 10 in the SEC in yards per carry and rushing success rate.

Since Lynn Bowden doesn't do enough already to hide this unit’s deficiencies, Gran has once again called upon the Youngstown, Ohio product to be the factor back in Kentucky’s multi-back wildcat set. But the results have not been that great so far yet UK might have no other way to play.

Bowden currently averages 4.88 yards per pop out of wildcats sets, but his success rate is a mere 25%. Fooling no one, defenses have limited UK’s carriers to 1.3 yards before contact on average out of the wildcat this year. This is not going to cut it.

Looking around at what the rest of the conference is doing to aid or facilitate things for one-dimensional QBs, there is some hope for what this staff can install.

Ole Miss with new offensive play caller Rich Rodriguez is a prime case study. Perhaps you caught their shellacking by the hands of the Crimson Tide last Saturday. In case you are unaware, Ole Miss’s entire offense is reliant on their QB’s legs.

Out of empty, they want to set up QB draws and powers if they have numbers in the box while having quick passing options with the likes of bubbles, tunnels, hitches, or fades. Against Alabama especially, Ole Miss used 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) to help bring in an element of deception with their bluff game.

12 personnel Bluff Read actions

Here a number of varieties Ole Miss and other SEC teams have called from the same formation with similar yet very different keys.

This then was upped up a notch in 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end). Adding an extra blocker on the bluff action for the QB means defenses cannot focus solely on the inside zone playside. This can toy will defenses way the old school triple option and wing-T offenses have for decades. The manner of operation is just evolved to modern wrinkles.

21 personnel Bluff Read Actions

All this doesn’t matter much though if the o-line isn’t up to the task of facing eight and nine man boxes each down. At least if UK’s targets can rise to the occasion, there should be one:one matchups on the outside if teams are aggressive honing in on the Cats’ ground game as depicted.

Sure, the defense has to win their battles too. Both the Florida and Mississippi State games could have had different outcomes had the defense gotten a clutch stop on a third down after a timeout. Much of the woes of any young defense is tackling. UK’s defense right now is no exception to that.

Looking at the run game only, UK has allowed 68% of its rushing yards AFTER contact the last three games. That is simply not sustainable especially if you want to squeeze the air out of the ball and restrict time of possession and downs.

SEC vs SEC Defensive Success Rate Weeks 1-5

Only Vanderbilt has a worse defensive success rate against SEC competition than Kentucky. UK is also in the bottom 5 in yards per play allowed, Havoc Rate, explosive plays allowed, and three-and-outs forced.

Mark Stoops maintains this all can be fixed with fundamental drills. We shall see.

With all that being said, you can call me negative if you want. Those are a lot of errors to correct in a week’s time. Luckily, UK takes on the worst the SEC West has to offer in a home tilt against Arkansas.

Best case scenario is UK blows the doors off the team that has a bounty of bad losses over the last couple of seasons and gets back on the right track; worst case is that this downward descent back to the basement of the SEC has only just begun.

I hope things get back on the right track...

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