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The UK passing game is already showing significant progress from 2018

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For UK to have another special season, the passing game needed to step up in a big way. So far, so good.

Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

Leading up to the start of the 2019 UK football season, one of the hottest topics of conversation was how the Cats would fill the gap in offensive production left by the loss of all-time leading rusher Benny Snell Jr.

Invariably, the answer tended toward a more balanced offense, as opposed to last year’s offense that ranked 36th of 130 FBS teams in total rushing yards but lurked near the bottom at 115th in passing. The promise from the coaching staff and players was that we would see a “juiced up” passing game behind a healthy Terry Wilson, with more attempts and more throws downfield.

So during our first victorious week -- over a purportedly good Group of Five team -- how did this play out?

Well, there was really not a lot difference from last year in terms of the mix of plays. In the chart below, we see UK averaged about 41 runs per game against 23 passes per game in 2018. In Week 1, UK ran the ball 39 times and passed 26 times.

But this is a good thing: in conjunction with good offensive line play, the trio of A.J. Rose, Kavosiey Smoke, and Chris Rodriguez provided a healthy mix of running capabilities that kept the ball moving over the ground.

We even had one of those Benny Snell-like breakaway touchdowns when Kavosiey Smoke took it 40 yards to the house to all but ice the game in the fourth quarter. In this aspect, the UK offense looked a lot like the one from 2018.

There was, however, at least one key difference in this game and the typical UK offensive performance from last year: passing productivity. In our second bar graph, we see that in 2018, UK averaged about 4.7 yards per running play which is very close to the 4.5 yards per run the team achieved on Saturday; in the passing game, the Cats netted 9.1 yards per play on Saturday, a 40% increase from the 6.5 yards per play in 2018.

This resulted from a combination of Wilson’s 73% completion percentage (as opposed to 66% for the team last year), being sacked only one time, and throwing the ball a little further down the field.

While the number of passing plays was similar to a typical game from last season, Wilson, his offensive line and his receivers did a better job of executing than they typically did last year (at least on paper – I know there are several of you thinking about a few of those throws by Wilson that were not exactly on target – but he had some nice ones too, and there were several athletic catches by multiple receivers, all of which bodes well for the rest of the season).

In addition, Wilson finished with a 177.9 passer rating. That’s actually the second-best in his 14-game career. The highest was the beatdown at Louisville against a Cardinals defense that was completely lifeless.

In its first game, the UK passing attack showed signs of taking it up a notch or two from last year, and boosted its ranking to 55th in total passing among the FBS schools. And while we all know the ranking will mean a lot more after a few SEC games, it was nice to see a good overall performance on the field by the passing unit.

Don’t forget that in all three losses last year, UK could only muster about two yards per carry in the rushing game (as opposed to almost five and a half in wins), and the passing attack was not able to respond to make up the difference. Later in the year, we are likely going to need that strong passing game to fall back on.

Source for statistics: ESPN.com