It’s the most boring weekend of the college football season for Kentucky Wildcats fans—bye week.
Kentucky sits at 2-4 overall, which is good for sixth place in the SEC East. It’s been a frustrating start to a season with high hopes, but all the Cats can do now is improve.
So, let’s take a look at four things Kentucky can look to improve upon during the bye week.
Get creative, i.e. score more points
I think everyone can agree that the offense has been extremely bland and predictable this season. There’s no passing attack and UK has done a poor job of feeding its best offensive player—Chris Rodriguez, albeit that is beginning to change.
The bye week is a great time to work out some of these kinks.
Kentucky is either last or close to last in every single passing category in the SEC. However, they’re second in the SEC in rushing. So despite the passing game being nonexistent, the Cats are still having success on the ground.
The issue is that the play-calling has become too conservative and predictable. The wide receivers aren’t getting open and the majority of pass plays being called are bubble screens and slants.
There’s no vertical threat in the passing game and that has to change. It was okay for UK to be one dimensional last season because Lynn Bowden was unstoppable, even when everyone knew what was coming, but that’s not the case this year.
Teams stack the box against Kentucky because they can play man-to-man on the receivers knowing they won’t get open. This creates both a pass rush and an ability to slow down the run when/if UK gets into third-down situations.
There are a lot of issues with the offense right now, but the biggest two are the passing game and play-calling. Something’s got to give and a little creativity could go a long way.
Let’s hope they figure this thing out.
Better pass protection
Don’t get me wrong, Kentucky’s offensive line is really, really good. But everyone can improve on something and for the Big Blue Wall, that’s pass protection.
As mentioned above, Kentucky ranks second in the SEC in rushing and that’s largely due to the excellent run blocking from the offensive line. The problem is they are much less adept in pass protection.
They gave up four sacks against the Georgia Bulldogs and now have given up the fourth most sacks in the SEC (13), despite ranking 13th in pass attempts. Yeah, that’s bad.
It’s incredibly difficult to develop a passing game when there’s no time for the quarterback to make his reads and find open receivers. Sure, there’s been a lot of blame placed on the quarterback position and the wide receivers, and rightfully so. But the issues in the passing attack go deeper than that, and look no further than the pass protection.
This is an extremely talented offensive line. We’re talking two or three NFL Draft picks. So, their inability to protect the quarterback will hopefully be corrected over time. They really haven’t had a ton of practice because UK has been such a run-heavy offense in the past.
However, I trust in John Schlarman and this offensive line to figure out, and the bye week seems like the perfect time to do so.
Create pressure on the opposing quarterback
Kentucky’s pass rush was always going to take a nosedive once Josh Allen left the program a couple of years ago, but it’s been really poor this season.
As good as the defense has been, the pass rush is something that really needs improvement. The Cats only have eight sacks through six games, which puts them at No. 12 in the SEC.
Of course, Kentucky has missed Quinton Bohanna the last two games, but that’s still no excuse. There’s a lot of talent on that defensive line and on the edge, so getting to the quarterback shouldn’t be this big of an issue.
This is especially true when you consider how good the defensive backfield has been. The pass defense has been great this season, which would lead one to believe that that gives the defensive line more time to get to the quarterback. That just hasn’t been the case.
Boogie Watson, Josh Paschal, and Jordan Wright are just a few of the stars that rush the passer for the Cats. Boogie leads the team with just three sacks after getting 6.5 last season, which led to a lot of Josh Allen comparisons. Wright is second on the team with two sacks, and while Paschal has been all over the place, he has zero sacks.
Another issue with this defense is forcing fumbles, which UK ranks dead last in the SEC with only one fumble recovery. I think a better pass rush could go a long way in remedying this problem.
Gain more hidden yards on special teams
Special teams can win or lose teams games. That’s why it’s so important that the Cats have have their not-so-secret weapon in punter Max Duffy. However, losing the hidden yardage battle is hurting this team.
Hidden yardage is the definition of adding up kickoff yards, kickoff return yards, punt, and punt return yards. It’s actually a bit surprising how much this can affect a game, but when you think about it, obviously a team’s chances of scoring decrease as they are pushed farther away from the end zone.
That’s what makes Max Duffy so valuable, but it’s also an issue on the other side of things. Kentucky gains a lot of hidden yardage in kickoffs and punts, but they lose most of that in kickoff and punt returns.
Josh Ali appears afraid to field the ball on the punts, which can be extremely costly. There was one play against Georgia where he let the ball bounce and it pinned UK deep in their own territory. There hasn’t been a punt return for a touchdown since Lynn Bowden’s in the Citrus Bowl against the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Meanwhile, Kentucky hasn’t had a kickoff return for a touchdown in who knows how long. Just take a look at these stats.
Most consecutive games played without having a kickoff return for a touchdown (active streak among current FBS schools): 163, Army; 148, Fresno State; 141, Kentucky— Corey Price (@coreyp08) October 27, 2020
Kentucky has not had a kickoff return for a touchdown in their last 141 games played. That is the 2nd longest such streak in school history (206 games, September 18th, 1971 to October 21st, 1989)— Corey Price (@coreyp08) October 27, 2020
Hidden yardage is important and can win or lose games. Kentucky needs new return men and they need to figure out a way to win on both sides of the kicking game.
The Cats can either return from the bye week sulking and sad, or they can fix some of these issues and win some football games down the stretch.
The Vanderbilt Commodores are up first, which is a good way to start, but it gets a lot harder from there.
Using the bye week to improve on at least these four things surely would help.