Saturday night down right sucked. No getting around it; that loss was brutal. And sadly, that kind of defeat is nothing out of the ordinary for the BBN.
For many, they had hoped that last year’s miraculous season was the dawn of a new era for UK football. Far gone would be the days-of-old stuffed with copious examples of heart-shattering, inexplicable, dumbfounding, and flabbergasting ways to let games get away when a W was right there for the taking. Saturday was a sobering reminder that this optimism was far from a reality. That collapse was classic Kentucky football.
I understand if you have no interest reading further. You have to be some special kind of masochist to want to relive what unfolded Saturday night at Kroger Field. But if you are so inclined, let’s vent and grief together.
Schematically, many wondered how much UK’s offense would change with the loss of Terry Wilson. From my perspective, it didn’t change much. Sure some designed QB counters and draw-based RPOs were thrown out the window, but Kentucky’s bread and butter inside zone philosophy remained in tact.
Sawyer Smith proved this on the very first snap as he kept a zone read for a modest gain of four. It was more symbolic than anything. But the point was made, he is more than just a stationary passer. While obviously lacking Wilson’s electricity, he isn’t as Jesse Palmer put it: “very immobile”.
UK’s foundational looks were their most called concepts on first downs. But both inside zones and their read counterparts only mustered a 31% success rate to begin series. This put the Cats behind the chains quite often especially early on.
The lack of run game seemingly had no effect on Smith in the first half. Despite averaging 9.7 yards to gain the first two quarters on his dropbacks, the Troy graduate transfer averaged over 8 yards per attempt with a 77% passing success rate. He had as many 20+ yard connections as incompletions through 2 quarters. His first half depth adjusted accuracy percentage was 81%. That is very good.
But as the game progressed and running the ball continued to have spotty results, the pressure kept building on the shoulders of Smith. Still, with the success he had been having, he started to press...
Behind the chains on 2nd down and smelling a golden opportunity to strike within the red zone, Smith tried to hit Lynn Bowden on a curl pattern. As we know, that pass sailed rightward and resulted in an INT. While his effort may have prevented a pick-six, Smith was not the same passer.
After that moment, Smith had only one accurate pass over 10 yards downfield the rest of the night. At least that attempt went for a score to Keaton Upshaw.
Red flags definitely were raised two plays earlier on that scoring drive when Smith overshot Bowden who had nothing but green grass in front of him. Likewise on the very next play when AhhhMyGawd Wagner bailed him out on an underthrown deep ball. But through three quarters of action he still posted a passing success rate of 73%.
But with a two-score lead and with his conservative tendencies itching to take over, Offensive Coordinator Eddie Gran opted to lean on UK’s favorite play: inside split zone.
(Click or Copy/Paste Link below to learn about the inside split zone).
On the two major sequences of the game, Gran called 3 straight inside split zones. The drive above ended on a fourth down stuff on a failed Wildcat try. The next major sequence when UK was driving for a potential game-winning score ended about the same...with an incredibly unsatisfactory result.
When UK needed the tough yards on 3rd or 4th down, this look only netted a single yard on three attempts. In a game of inches, it often comes down to execution. Conservative play calling or no, Kentucky’s OL was outmanned when it mattered most.
The unit received hefty praise from TV talking heads, network analysts, and a good deal of newspaper scribes leading up to the game. Yet, UK only averaged a yard and a half before contact for the game on a 39% rushing success rate. That has to drive a hard-nosed, old school minded coach like Stoops bonkers.
For the past 3 years, this offense’s identity has hinged on its ability to win in phone booths and gain tough yardage. By failing to get a yard on two separate occasions that would have almost surely led to higher percentage scoring opportunities, Kentucky’s hog-mollies must respond moving forward if this team wants to make some noise this season.
AJ Rose entered this season as the SEC’s most successful ball carrier among backs based on 2018’s numbers. Saturday definitely brought down his average. Even Sawyer Smith posted a better success rate than Rose vs. Florida. Though obvious by watching the game and seeing his stat line, he ended up with only a 29% success rate.
SMOKE was the only bright spot in the Cat’s run game. The he and the line managed to muscle a 2.50 yards before contact average, which is almost a half a yard above the SEC average so far this season. His 56% success rate from Saturday actually lowers his season total to 58.8% - This is on track to have him Top5 within the SEC.
After Chance Poore pushed his FG try rightward and Josh Hammond shot down the field to press within half a point of the spread, Gran lost all flexibility on what he could call on UK’s last possession. Though accentuated by low chance tries on the final series, Smith’s passing efficiency precipitously declined throughout the last stanza.
Smith’s ended up with a 41% passing success rate in the second half (23% in the 4thQ) with a depth adjusted accuracy of 27.5%... over 53 percent worse than his first half clip. Again, its hard not to point fingers at that possible wrist ailment.
In the end, over a fourth of his passes were charted as uncatchable while 17% of his tries were interceptable. Even with a YAC machine in Bowden and a toss-up titan in Ahmad Wagner, this cannot continue. Plain and simple.
Speaking of the wide receivers, they played a pretty good game. Ahmad Wagner had 2 created catches (both of which went for 20+) and Lynn Bowden stepped up with one on the missed FG drive. Plus, no one dropped a pass.
Bowden commanded 41% of the team’s targets further cementing this squad’s “Tunnel Offense” philosophy. Only Jerry Jeudy has commanded more a higher percentage of his team’s targets than him. For a basketball analogy, think of this as Bowden being a streaky volume shooter. His success rate was only 43% the other night. To date, he ranks 14th out of 21 SEC receivers in success rate.
Wagner on the other hand, has been nothing but superb. One of those created catches was one of the most impressive I have ever seen by a Wildcat wideout. He caught all three of his catchable targets (he was the nearest in vicinity to the Hail Mary at the end so he got stuck with it).
Wagner is on track to be place within the SEC’s Top5 most successful targets with a 75% clip even though he has the fourth highest average depth of target in the conference. To date, he leads the SEC in yards per target but has the lowest target share of any receiver with at least 10 opportunities. Gran needs to scheme more effectively.
With half of Week 3’s games charted at SECStatCat.com, UK currently is in the bottom 5 in the SEC in 3-and-out Rate, Turnover Rate, Pass Havoc Allowed Rate, and Average Yards to Gain. And that’s AFTER playing two MAC schools.
What is kind of head-scratching (as was the case last year), is this offensive staff’s reluctance to use play fakes despite utilizing a run-laded scheme. UK was the third most run-heavy offense last season within the conference and yet Terry Wilson had the third lowest play action usage.
Right now of SEC QBs with at least 20 pass attempts, Smith is dead last in play action usage with a 4.55% clip. The next closest passer is Vanderbilt’s Riley Neal at 13.3%. For what it’s worth, Feleipe Franks had the second highest rate amongst starters before his injury, and Kyle Trask saw play action on three-fourths of his attempts against the Cats. Even with Florida’s run game getting stuffed, the threat of attacking on the ground still opened up alleys that did damage.
Kentucky is much more balance this year than in year’s passed under Gran in terms of Run:Pass ratio. But with Smith potentially not 100% and an understandable unwillingness to toss Walker Wood into the fray, it remains to be seen if runs get more looks moving forward for the Cats.
If UK wants to keep this recent trend of airing it out, Gran has to call and/or design better pass concepts than what I have charted. Too many of the concepts are stale and stationary (all curls), reliant on too many factors (fades, all verts), or unsustainable over the course of a game (screens). They work sometimes. But again, he has to make Smith’s job easier which in turn should facilitate the ground game.
With a mediocre overall Success Rate, Explosive Play Rate, Yards/Play, and Points/Drive, Gran has plenty of questions for his unit. Traveling to Starkville this week will be his first chance to see if he has any answers or if he continues his usual modus operandi.
With a long week ahead, let’s try and display some quiet dignity and grace after that disappointment. What do you say, BBN?
For more SEC X’s and O’s, Jimmie and Joes, and stats you wanna know, visit SECStatCat.com.