When giving performance reviews, a good deal of managers like to abide by the “compliment sandwich”. Instead of hitting employees over the head with flubs or criticisms from the onset, they aim to offset that with a pair of flatteries.
To start, something soothing is said before the blunt talk. Once the realness occurs, the ending tends to be on an uplifting note. That way, the critiques sting less and folks aren’t left in a salty mood afterwards.
To be frank: that kind of review won’t be occurring here. Revelations will come to light. Well-deserved adulation will occur. But, feelings are going to be hurt.
In order to properly set expectations for Kentucky’s final month of SEC play, we need to take a proper look under the hood and see what the hell is going on. No need to sugarcoat anything. After all, we’re talking about Kentucky football.
So let’s start with the obvious stain on UK’s profile: the lack of passing threat. Supplanting Terry Wilson back at quarterback instead of wide-receiver turned factor back Lynn Bowden should have helped the Cats find more consistency and balance offensively. Kentucky is passing more, but clearly that hasn’t helped serviceable numbers manifest. So far, UK’s efficiency throwing the ball represents the SEC’s floor in 2020.
We have to talk about the quarterbacks first, because that’s like the law of football analysis or something. It’s in the by-laws we sportswriters by which are forced to abide. Both Wilson and Joey Gatewood rank last and second to last in Passing Success Rate with conference play, respectively. UK’s 29.7% clip as a team is seven percentage points worse than the next team in line. So that’s not a great start, but let’s keep going.
If you suffer from motion sickness or easily get nauseous I would recommend skipping seeing where Wilson sits among the 16 other SECers with at least 35 attempts: 10th in the First Down+TD Rate (33%), 11th in raw Accuracy% (63%), 14th in Explosive Pass Rate (7%), and again, 16th in Success Rate (37%).
Wilson is overly cautious either by instinct or by coaching. There are times he doesn’t trust his targets and doesn’t let it rip; there are others he doesn’t run with gusto or zeal on designed runs. But we are here to talk about the pass stuff. Transitioning from the junior college ranks to the SEC can be rocky. For whatever reason, Wilson has consistently appeared uncomfortable, tentative, and lacking in situational awareness ever sense he has donned the Blue and White.
Getting the best out of him has been a constant chore for this coaching staff. Some weeks he plays lost and in a daze while others he looks determined and focused. While buzz around his potential swelled this summer thanks to his legs and play making capability, there was little substantive evidence in which to find solace around his passing.
After a year on the mend, Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw opted to lean into RPOs, screens, and ample routes close to the line of scrimmage for their underwhelming passer. Wilson has the SEC’s 5th-highest percentage of throws off RPO designs with no other conference QB topping his 14% Screen Rate.
Of the 16 qualifying QBs, only Mississippi State freshman Will Rogers has a lower percentage of their yards come after the catch than Wilson’s 36.7% clip. Thanks to this conservative approach, his 3% Interceptable Pass Rate is the SEC’s lowest entering Week 7. And for those curious, no Gatewood doesn’t have better numbers if he were to be included in this sample.
Contrary to his M.O. of predominantly targeting short, Wilson has been rather accurate on his deep ball this year. His 45.5% Deep Accuracy% is the SEC’s fourth best. But only three of his 11 such attempts have wound up as completions. Three of thee throws were uncatchable and three were dropped.
Kentucky’s offense lacks speed. Sure Wilson can scoot in his own right, but UK’s receivers particularly cannot separate downfield. That debilitating flaw has further handcuffed play callers.
For the most part, the Cats’ passing game is a tunnel offense for Josh Ali. Though average-sized, UK moves him all over the formation and stresses to get him the ball. Only Alabama’s DeVonta Smith, Ole Miss’s Eli Moore, and South Carolina’s Shi Smith command a higher share of their team’s pass targets so far within SEC play than Ali’s 33.6% clip.
But his 41.5% Catching Success Rate — including all the screens, RPO outlets, and downfield targets — falls into the SEC’s bottom15. No UK pass catcher with at least 5 targets has a Success Rate north of 43% (the SEC average is 51.4%). And that makes the bullseye on Ali’s back widen. Ali has been on the receiving end of 4/7 explosive passes, 13/33 first downs, and 207/466 yards after the catch. Opponents know if he’s taken away, UK is all the more muted.
The only other Wildcat receiver to have seen at least 18 targets, DeMarcus Harris, owns the conference’s floor with a 22.2% Success Rate overly thanks to an SEC-high 27.8% Drop Rate.
Harris’ issues hauling in targets is hardly an isolated Issue. Among conference passers with at least 30 attempts entering Week 7, both Wilson (13%) and Gatewood (10%) own top5 Drop Rates within SEC play.
Because the Cats have no play makers to deviate attention off of Ali, UK has to play rinky-dinky with the aforementioned copious screens and steal yards via RPOs. The Cats best, and of course that term is relative, pass offense under Eddie Gran was blessed with a good amount of unit speed.
Jeff Badet, Garrett Johnson, and Boom Williams all had homerun ability. The Cats logged many-a-highlight from the its deep and vertical passing game even without the sharpest passer. The cupboard has dwindled each subsequent offseason as UK has gone more run-heavy. But it’s clear, the current corps of pass catchers is the worst since Gran and Hinshaw came down from Cincinnati.
Without fearing anyone can take the top off, defensive opponents have been incentivized to play single-high, crowd the box to stop the run, and man up UK’s lackluster wideouts. Since the receivers lack any potency or consistent ability to win downfield, defenses can commit an extra body to stuff UK’s ground game.
Moreover, the Cats’ receivers cannot win in 50/50 or contested situations, which is a real kick in the balls to this already flawed passing game. Wilson is 0/13 on tight window throws and Gatewood is 3/11. Their combined 12.5% Completion% and 41.7% Accuracy% on these attempts both fall well below the SEC averages (38.3% and 46.9%).
While Gatewood has been forced to press more in his snaps and currently rocks the SEC’s highest Contested Target Rate, the weary Wilson’s 13% clip is the lowest in the conference.
And we cannot exclude the illustrious Big Blue Wall out of this equation either. Though its prowess winning in the trenches is well renown, the Big Blue Wall frequently crumbles against the pass rush.
Only Arkansas’ line has posted a worse Pressure Rate than the 32.9% clip the Cats currently own entering their bye with none surrendering a Sack Rate higher than their 9.03%. With them not being able to hold their own, it accentuates UK’s play callers abilities to call worthwhile designs.
UK’s passers are cautious, risk-adverse and sporadic. UK’s receivers are slow, toothless, and inconsistent. UK’s pass blocking is dismissible, unstable, and unreliable. As we have seen this season when the ground game can’t get going, the Cats are miserable through the air. “Havoc plays” are simply defined as any bad thing that can happen to an offense (sacks, TFLs, INTs, forced fumbles, batted balls, deflections, QB hits, etc). The Cats’ 16.8% Pass Havoc Rate is the SEC’s 3rd-worst. Over 18% of their pass plays were charted as “broken” due to a botched execution, the design breaking down, or miscommunication.
Even when UK’s staff tries to help its pass game get going on early downs, the Cats have floundered. We in the analytics community are big into early down passing. Since passes gain more runs on average, they are more likely to result in success.
With a higher probability for success and higher ceiling for a big play, the likelihood a team is put behind the chains is less than if they wanted to follow the old status quo of run-run-pass. But despite the numbers telling us passing earlier in the downs should facilitate a passer’s slate, no SEC offenses has posted a lower Early Down Passing Success Rate than Kentucky’s 32.7% clip. UK is so inept starting series with a pass that its clip is over five percentage points worse than the next SEC offense in line.
And when the run game doesn’t present manageable 3rd Down opportunities, the Cats haven’t exactly crushed it in that department either. On 3rd Downs with six or more yards to gain, UK has only converted on 13.9% of tries, which is good for dead last in the SEC.
Knowing all of that, it’s awfully hard to scheme up a supporting element to your run-first approach, wouldn’t you say? It’s not like UK can orchestrate long-developing plays or get too cute without fear of killing a drive or shooting itself in the foot.
So, it’s not a shocker UK remains to be one of the most run-oriented offenses around. How about we take a look at what exactly is being dialed up when the Cats dropback to pass.
Obviously, screens lead the way on the script with a 12.3% Play Share among their 155 passes. Either as compliments, RPO tags, or on their own merit Slant Variations are next in line with 17 targets and a 10.9% Share. Floods (7.74%), Smashes (7.1%), All Verts (6.45%), and Meshes (6.45%) round out the rest of their favorite pass patterns.
Outside of All Verts, most of these patterns focus on having routes really close to the line of scrimmage with an intermediate option overtop. Other featured dropback pass looks include Switch Variations, Shallow, Shot/Fade plays, Fake Screen “Fox” designs, and Sticks.
Slants are basic and should be self explanatory. As a quick, one-cut route, placing slants opposite other combos or pairing them with another has helped UK’s challenged unit get easy completions. “Tosser” — or dual slants — has received 13 of this concept’s 17 targets for a 46.2% Success Rate.
Floods are patterns that aim to overload one side of the defensive coverage. They can come off play action or be a simple as pairing a deep out with a vertical. With Wilson’s mobility and UK’s affinity for running the ball, play actions bootlegs have seen a good amount of tries. By getting him on the move and outside the pocket, boots help simplify his reads, throwing lanes, and allow his athleticism to come into play.
Smash Variations are high-lo patterns along the sideline. Though the basic pattern calls for an outside hitch and inside corner, there are plenty of ways to run Smashes. UK leans more into the “Bench” wrinkle. Usually out of stack formations, Bench substitutes the hitch for a quick-out. When targeting true Benches this year, UK has posted a 75% Success Rate.
All Verts is certainly a desperation play in UK’s offense. When behind the chains or needing a play late, UK often just sends three or four guys straight downfield. Knowing what we know about this pass game, it’s not really a design that plays to this unit’s strengths. Across the 10 targeted All Verts, the Cats have failed to see a single one result in success.
Meshes are passes built around two intersecting drag routes that aim to create rub action and traffic for trailing coveragemen in man. For teams that lack natural speed or an adequate first step, they can be a way to create cushion. The variety of meshes are copious as what you do with the remaining two or three receivers depends on how its categorized.
The following six plays compose a quarter of UK’s pass plays and 38% of its pass yards entering its bye week. While Kentucky’s Pass Success Rate is 29.7% overall, these particular patterns have combined to yield a 46.2% clip.
a) Shallow + Verts: 8 reps, 61 yards, 7.63 Y/A, 37.5% Success Rate
Named for the primary drag route, this concept aims to hit a shallow once it crosses the other side of the center. It can be an easy design to get the ball to a playmaker with some inertia on a short-distance throw.
The Shallow concept always calls for an overtop dig flowing from the other side of the formation. UK has also run an underneath drag on the “Seattle” version of All Verts, which calls for an inside switch and cross.
b) Play Action Waggle + Sail: 7 reps, 56 yards, 8.00 Y/A, 42.9% Success Rate
With athletic passers, UK will move the pocket on occasion with Waggles and Bootlegs. On their most-targeted design, the TE slide initially looks like a split zone action (one of UK’s go-to run looks) before working towards the other side of the formation and operating as the hot route towards the flat with the deep corner+vert combo making up the Sail concept. Another wrinkle calls for a deep corner from the slot and a comeback from the outside receiver. UK has found Ali a couple times on the deep out route.
c) Bench/Yoyo Smash: 7 reps, 42 yards, 6.00 Y/A 42.9% Success Rate
Smash variations are common in all levels of football. As a concept group, they all are different ways to create high-lo reads along the sidelines. As time has gone on, offenses have had to get creative to make them work against defenses accustomed to seeing them. UK’s two favorite versions are “Bench” and Yoyo Smash. UK has liked to call both out of stack sets.
d) Kelly Mesh: 7 reps, 27 yards, 3.89 Y/A, 42.9% Success Rate
UK hasn’t been immune to adopting one of the game’s most popular plays in recent years. Named for Chip Kelly’s version of mesh, this pattern stands out thanks to being called from tight formations and calling for a running back wheel. The non-mesh playside receiver typically runs a spot or sit hook. The backside non-mesh receiver’s route can vary but is usually vertical in nature. The most common tags are digs, corners, posts, fades, or a cross.
e) Fox Bubble / “Wheelie”: 7 reps, 72 yards, 10.3 Y/A, 42.9% Success Rate
While UK turns to All Verts from time-to-time, Switches aren’t too far behind in play share and are one of their top vertical pass concepts. “Wheelie” has been the most featured so far. This look calls for an inside wheel and outside dig or post. From unbalanced sets, UK likes to do a fake bubble screen action.
From heavy sets, they’ve been known to run max protection and taking a shot off play action. Though not included in these numbers, UK also has called for a handful of “Fox” faux screens that commonly feature Wheelie in designs.
e) Spot + Tosser: 5 reps, 33 yards, 6.6 Y/A, 80% Success Rate
For a lot of offenses, this route combination is a Day one install play. It’s basic and seen on all levels of football. But you wouldn’t see it so much if it didn’t work. Set up to beat multiple coverages, the three-man spot concept is built to beat zones while the dual slants are great manbeaters. All four of the successful reps on this design have targeted the backside slants.
As we know, UK lives and dies by its ground game. If the Cats can run on early downs and set up short yardage situations on later ones, they will gladly play old-school, grind out the clock, and aim to wear down defenses (while giving their own defense extended vacations on the sideline). That game plan doesn’t work if the offensive line can’t consistently forge runs lanes.
Thankfully for the Cats, Kentucky’s Big Blue Wall has mostly lived up to its reputation as one of the best run blocking units around. All year, they’ve been within the SEC’s top3 in average rush yards before contact. Entering the bye week, the Cats currently average 2.79 YBC for the conference’s silver medal. Last year in SEC play, they averaged 2.86 for reference’s sake.
While the Cats look strong in that regard, that figure fluctuates despite their O-Line’s perception. Heading into Week 7, the SEC average YBC is 2.35 yards. Though the Cats’ average is healthily above that threshold, they have only beaten that mark twice in six games. UK’s yards before contact fell below 2.25 against Auburn, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Georgia. Sure, UGA’s defense is bound to humiliate most offenses as the top defense in ESPN’s SP+ Ratings. But even with that game off the table, UK failed to put together four solid quarters running the ball against the 24th, 57th, and 28th ranked defenses. Kicking ass against Ole Miss’s hapless defense (92nd in SP+) really padded Kentucky’s cumulative figure as the Cats put up a sterling 3.6 YBC (the Rebels defense averages allowing 2.79 through the first half of 2020).
With average to below-average cushion, that has put more pressure on UK’s backs to be play makers. Most backs that log playing time in the SEC can all run to space and look handsome doing so. Far less can shed tacklers or make plays versus clogged run lanes consistently. But being able to dependably do those things unquestionably helps rushers stick out. With UK’s aforementioned woes stretching defenses vertically and its rush-orientated offense, opponents have no qualms putting an extra body in the box to muck up the Cats’ run game and force them to make plays after contact.
The Cats have shown to be rather average in that department so far. Their 2.44 YAC is right at the SEC mean compared to their 3.01 mark in 2019. Across their 234 carries, UK’s rushers have only broke 39 tackles for a 16.7% clip. Last year, the Cats’ team Broken Tackle Rate sat at 30.2% nearly doubling 2020’s figure.
Lynn Bowden’s magic obviously skewed some of these stats in UK’s favor. Obviously a dynamo with the ball in his hands, Bowden was the main offensive driver for the Cats and often the genesis for all of their explosive gains. Even when he wasn’t making spectacular runs, defenses could ill-afford to deter their attention else where, Since defenders had their sights set on the soon-to-be Hornung Award winner, UK’s backs were enabled to gallop to green grass on plenty of occasions.
Either overloading to Bowden’s side of the mesh or anticipating a QB run (which always has the offense holding the numbers advantage), defenses were naturally kept off-balance despite UK’s one-dimensional approach. This allowed run lanes to open a little easier and less mess fell into the path of ball carriers. And even if defenders were in the right spot, UK’s scheme stretched foes horizontally so well that if that man didn’t make the tackle there would be no one else left to prevent a chunk gain. Give or take, the SEC’s average Broken Tackle Rate last season hovered around 30%. So UK was actually on par with that on the hole. But Bowden and Chris Rodriguez each sported top10 clips individually.
A good portion of UK’s explosive gains on the ground came after contact. Bowden, Rodriguez, and AJ Rose all finished inside the SEC’s top10 in YAC average last fall. While all four of UK’s main rushers saw 13.3% or better of their runs go for 10+ yards on average, Lynn and C-Rod both comfortably sat in the conference’s top5. As a team, over 20% of UK’s designed carries went 10+ even including the output from the first half of 2019. Only Mississippi State claimed a preferable rate within the SEC.
Flash forward to today and UK’s run game lacks the same potency. As far as this facet goes, it’s a direct result of fewer breakaways and being easier to bring down than last year. Obviously, it would be a nearly-impossible ask to replicate Bowden’s magic. But UK hasn’t come close to imitating its results from last year.
With Bowden, a highlight could occur on any given down. Despite that threat and the Cats’ ability to bust big gainers, UK’s rush attack wasn’t consistent in the slightest. In fact, down-to-down, they were rather average. Yes the chunk runs helped inflate UK’s 5.76 Y/C in SEC play inside the conference’s top3, but its 42.7% Rushing Success Rate was right at the mean.
That has inverted in 2020 largely because of Kentucky’s inability to bust out of tackles. While the SEC average itself has shrunk to 24.7% thanks to the higher degree of difficulty of facing a league defense each week, all four of UK’s primary rushers sport a Broken Tackle Rate below the 2019 conference mean. Rodriguez is the only one to best this season’s average with a 28.0% clip, but that was Rose’s exact figure a year earlier. Still, C-Rod barely cracks the conference’s top15 in that regard. UK is far from elite when the run lanes aren’t there.
Less broken tackles and yards after contact has yielded far less explosive gains. Only about 12.4% of UK’s runs have gone 10+ this fall, which is well below the SEC average and the 6th-worst in conference play. Since Wilson lacks Bowden’s homerun ability and is noticeably a “softer” runner, defenses haven’t been put into the same quandaries they were in a year ago. They can play the numbers normally, which makes it harder on Kentucky’s backs to do damage.
Collecting chunk gains is what made the Lynnsanity Offense work. If you can’t consistently gain 5 yards at a time, you better be able to generate substantial gains to offset that. Wilson is the only UK rusher with at least 15 runs with an Explosive Run Rate of at least 13.3%, the threshold all of their ball carriers reached a year ago. The SEC average is 13.5% entering Week 7. (FWIW Kavosiey Smoke sported a 25% clip on his 12 carries prior to injury).
With the splash runs being seldom, UK has had to focus on winning down-to-down more. And at least for their sake, they have been much better in that respect year-over-year. While ho-hum last year, UK is one of six SEC offenses with a Rushing Success Rate 50% or better in 2020. Heck the first month of the season, the were the SEC’s second-best.
Like last year, no SEC offense dedicates more early down play calls to runs than the Wildcats. Again while passing is up thanks to Wilson’s returns, no one is close to matching UK’s affinity for establishing the run. UK’s Pass Rate on 1st or 2nd Down is only 37.7%; the next closest SEC offense’s clip is 41.2%.
In terms of Success Rate, UK is rather average in those spots. I already mentioned no SEC passing game is worse than the Cats on early downs. So you can imagine the added pressure it puts on their ball carriers to come through and keep this offense afloat. But UK’s Rushing Success Rate is about three percentage points worse in these spots than its overall figure.
This implies UK has been able to take care of business when running on 3rd Down, which is indeed the case. The Cats are particularly gifted at winning on 3rd and Short (three yards or less) where they have posted an 80.7% overall Success Rate. But when they turn to the ground in these spots, UK sports a sterling 90% clip. Going into the Georgia game, neither Rose or Rodriguez experienced a failed late down rush attempt. While both saw their streaks end on their first such carries of the afternoon, both currently sit inside the conference’s top3 in 3rd Down Rushing Success Rate.
If you don’t know by now, I guess it’s time for me to play the role of spoiler. Rodriguez is UK’s best back and has been for some time. If you have followed my work in the past or have a functioning set of eyes, this should not come as any bit of a shocker. But for those who don’t know, Rodriguez owned the second best Yards/Carry, YAC average, Explosive Run Rate, and First Down+TD Rate against SEC defenses last year. Along with sharing the league’s best Broken Tackle Rate, CRod was one of three conference backs with at least 50 touches to put up and Expected Points Added/play over 0.3.
A lot has held true in 2020 for the sophomore. Only Alabama’s Najee Harris currently rocks a better EPA/play among SEC backs. Pro Football Focus currently has him graded as the conference’s top back largely thanks to his consistency and making the most of his carries. Entering Week 7, Rodriguez is second in the conference in Rushing Success Rate (64%), First Down+TD Rate (40%) and Negative Run Rate (1.33%) while also holding a top10 YAC average (3.0) and Y/C (5.49). Like UK’s offense as a whole, his tackle shedding and breakaways are down on average. Still, his numbers are UK’s greatest source of optimism.
UK’s 50.9% Rushing Success Rate on the surface looks just fine. But if we dig a little deeper and see that Rodriguez is the only UK rusher with double-digit carries to top that clip, that should be a major red flag for Big Blue. Roughly 55% of UK’s carries have gone towards Rose, Wilson, or Gatewood. All of them fall into the bottom13 of conference rushers in terms of Success Rate.
What’s worse for the offense that is incredibly reliant on ball control is the trio’s popcorn fingers. Excluding sacks and scrambles, all three sit in the SEC’s bottom4 with high Fumble Rates. While the SEC average is less than a percentage point, Gatewood, Wilson, and Rose have 5.56%, 4.44%, and 4.17% clips, respectfully. Their five such fumbles account for over a fifth of the fumbles on designed carries in the conference so far. Yikes.
While Smoke’s numbers look sturdy in comparison to UK’s other rushers, I’ll quickly point out he hasn’t broken a single tackle and saw immense cushion before contact. It remains to be seen what he can do upon returning from injury or if a youngster steals his snaps. But it’s looking increasingly like the Cats are returning to the formula of riding a bellcow like they did with Benny Snell. The past two weeks within the SEC, Rodriguez’s carry share has taken off thanks 55% of his runs going for five or more yards, directly helping his 6.1 Y/C in this span to sit atop the conference.
While a fine change-of-pace back behind Snell, Rose hasn’t been able to carry the mantle the past couple of seasons. Fumbling has always been a concern around Rose; but that element paired with inefficient running has him losing reps. His Success Rate is under 40%, his Explosive Run Rate is in the single-digits, and his 18.8% Broken Tackle Rate is well under the SEC mean.
Rose and Smoke have more speed than Rodriguez. But they are certainly more reliant on less mess falling in their paths in order to be successful. For the most part, this was the case last season after UK went Lynnsane. If neither can offer explosive gains with greater consistency, there’s no reason for UK to allow someone else take carries away from its best back.
So as the most run-heavy offense in the SEC, let’s see what Gran and Co. go to the most when running the rock. UK’s run offense is the one of the most diverse in the SEC. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The Cats have called 18 separate run concepts multiple times. While other SEC units spread the wealth around to more concepts, Kentucky certainly has its preferences. Four run concepts have received at least 10 reps. Six others have received between eight and five tries.
Calling UK’s scheme boring, unimaginative, and stale is a lazy take. People making that claim either aren’t paying attention to what the Cats are running or are just playing the result. I mean, come on. We are less than a year removed from one of the most unique offensive squads in program history. Sure, there are some plays UK puts a whole deal of trust into and runs a lot more than others. But again, play callers don’t have much leeway or room for missteps.
Inside Zone Slam Read, Inside Zone Bluff Read, Power Veers, and traditional Counters account for 68.7% of UK’s run plays and 78.4% of their yards on designed carries. When combined, UK’s core runs yield a 54.5% Success Rate on a 5.89 Y/C. Both figures are easily better than the Cats’ overall marks in those respective stats. When the Cats can execute them, they often find themselves in great spots. When they biff their bread and butter looks, however, that’s when things start to go sideways.
a) IZ Slam Read: 77 reps, 391 yards, 5.08 Y/A, 49.4% Success Rate
Like many rush offenses, UK leans heavily on zone schemes. Slam Reads initially aim to hit the B-gap between the playside guard and tackle with the QB having an option to keep based on a key defender on the backside. But zones, unlike gap schemes, don’t always have to end up where the designed hole is. Depending on how the defensive front reacts to the zone flow, the back can hit the hole, stretch towards the edge or cutback against the grain. Of the look’s 77 tries, 53 have featured RPO route tags.
b) IZ Bluff Read: 35 reps, 220 yards, 6.29 Y/A, 65.7% Success Rate
Like its brother concept, Slam Read, this inside zone aims to work the B-gap. But instead of asking the entire front to work playside, the tight end will fire across the formation and seal the edge. This does a couple of things. First, it provides a hard cutback alley for the back. Second, it messes with linebackers’ run keys since due to the path’s orientation. Third, it provides the QB with a “personal protector” on Bluff Read keepers against certain fronts. While Slam Reads feature route tags more, 57% of Bluff Reads have been of the non-RPO variety.
c) Power Veer: 17 reps, 106 yards, 6.24 Y/A, 47.1% Success Rate
This power run wrinkle is a great compliment to UK’s two zone plays. While the majority of read options send the QB and back towards opposite sides of the center, the Inverted Power Veer sends the pair towards the same side. Plus, the QB and back swap run assignments. Usually, the back is the dive player heading inside or the designed hole and with the QB running to space or the edge. But in “inversion” comes from the QB being the primary rusher behind the backside guard puller with the RB working outward. It’s a great design to get QBs north and south.
d) Counter / Counter Read: 16 reps, 137 yards, 8.56 Y/A, 62.5% Success Rate
Like it’s name implies, Counter is meant as a change-up look to play over-aggressive defenses against itself. Since zones call for a coordinated flow, they are easily identifiable post snap. This can cause linebackers to be itchy and anxious to work playside. With a backside guard setting the edge as a trapper and usually an offset tight end wrapping through the hole as the lead blocker, this gap scheme can easily be advantageous against defenders out of position away from the misdirection. Non-read Counters have delivered far worse returns compared to its read counterpart so far. Counter Reads have posted a 72.7% Success Rate on a fantastic 11.5 Y/A. Tackle Counters, that call for the backside tackle to replace the tight end, are also seen by UK and are one of its better secondary run plays.
Looking at the six secondary run concepts (QB Draw, Tackle Counters, Wildcat Inside Zone, Bash Counter, Inside Zone Triple Options, and Bash Counter Toss Reads), the Kentucky’s Success Rate falls to 50%. This is highly correlated to UK’s favorite short yardage play from the Wildcat set as seven of its eight attempts have moved the chains. But with that concept out of the equation, the remaining five secondary run looks sport a forgettable 40.1% clip on a 5.72 Y/C.
If you notice, a good amount of these runs are looks that try to take advantage of putting the QB into an advantageous spot as a ball carrier. While QB draws are obvious as to why, Bash plays swap the backfield’s run orientations. Usually the back follows the blocking with the QB running towards space or the edge. On Bash Counters, the QB will follow a pair of blockers on a misdirection thanks to that said swap. If the QB and RB mesh in the backfield normally, it’s categorized as a Bash Counter. But if a toss action occurs, it’s logged as that particular wrinkle instead. While great looks with Lynn Bowden, Bash plays have been overly a letdown. You can see how the Bash Counter Toss Read and Tackle Counter read can compliment each other nicely.
While UK’s defense stands out in some spots, it’s far from being a stalwart that can offset its offense’s troubles. The Cats’ offense suffers from the SEC’s 6th-worst Turnover Rate, 5th-worst Scoring Drive Rate, 4th-worst 3-and-Out Rate, 4th-worst TD Rate, 3rd-worst Points/Play, and 3rd-worst Explosive Play Rate entering the bye week. Stoops’ Troops have rarely been given a cushion and have been forced to operate with a razor thin margin of error.
While UK’s defense wasn’t particularly playing well to start the year, failing to replicate two stat categories from 2019 made their shortcomings intensify when the offense played flat. Until Week 3, UK logged zero takeaways, allowed 10 TDs, and accounted for only 1 sack (that was off an biffed RPO draw). One of the magic pills that transformed UK’s defense in 2019 was allowing the 3rd lowest TD Rate (3.74%) and securing the best Takeaway Rate (3.31%) in SEC play. The Cats were almost as likely to generate a turnover as let up a touchdown on a per snap basis against conference offenses.
Skip ahead to a month or so later and the Cats have improved mightily in those spots. The Cats have forced 12 takeaways and have surrendered only 12 combined TDs and FGs since. On the year, Kentucky’s TD Rate allowed has crept into the SEC’s top3 (3.54%) with no conference defense sporting a lower rate of drives that result in points (23.2%). The Cats’ 2.83% Takeaway Rate falls right in the middle even if their 12 by volume are tied for the SEC’s 2nd-most.
Playing an offensive style that likes to take the air out of the ball only works when its defense can keep foes off the scoreboard. So at least the Cats are holding their own there. Gran and Co have showed they simply are not capable of playing from behind or overcoming large deficits. So if UK’s defense starts slow and allows a decent amount of success for opposing offenses early on, the results aren’t usually great. Fortunately for Kentucky, the increased takeaways have been major assets. Even against last week against UGA, UK’s defense didn’t look dependable at all down-to-down but came up with two crucial turnovers that kept the game a low-scoring rock fight. The offense just didn’t do its part.
Like in year’s passed, Kentucky sits back and overly follows the bend, don’t break philosophy. Aiming to keep everything in front of them, they are more likely to give cushion in the box, play two-deep zone, and hope their combatants make mistakes.
The numbers back up this passive approach. UK allows an average amount of plays/game and first downs/drive relative to other SEC defenses. And while they are 3rd in yards/drive, the Cats own the 5th-lowest 3-and-Out Rate forced entering Week 7. While there’s no guaranteed formula in regards to generating takeaways, a good amount of defensive play callers believe creating “Havoc” is the best way to do so. These plays can be defined as anything as “bad” for an offense including: sacks, TFLs, batted balls, turnover plays, QB hits, and that sort of thing. UK doesn’t lean into that mindset in the slightest. Already allowing a decent amount of room in the box, only Ole Miss sports a lower Havoc Rate than Kentucky’s 13.9% clip.
Let’s take a quick trip to the hardwood for a brief aside. Rick Pitino’s Louisville defenses often come to mind when I think of Havoc in college basketball. They were active, played in the gray area of the rule book in terms of physicality, and aimed to disorient opponents. This style usually allowed them to feast creating turnovers but often allowed an easy basket if they were out of position. On the other side of the coin, you have Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone. Though the zone has natural weak spots, it strives to make teams beat you playing perfect or being patient. If a team is hot, then that’s all she wrote. But if they clang and clang and clang, they can start to press and have mental errors. While less prone to their own mistakes, the zone is matchup reliant more so than the Havoc-inducing scheme. UK’s defense certainly follows the Boeheim approach with its aforementioned playing style.
UK’s Pressure Rate is the 5th-best but no SEC defense experiences from a lower Sack Rate with the Cats’ TFL Rate being 2nd-worst. Sitting back to help facilitate pass defense has made UK allow a higher amount of rush yards before contact. On average, Stoops’ Troops allow 2.26 YBC, which is the 5th-worst in the SEC ahead of Week 7.
But thanks to their ability to rally and ball hawk, UK’s defense is more than serviceable. No SEC defense allows less than the Cats’ 1.74 rush yards after contact average with only Georgia being more sound run tacklers (83.3%). And looking at curbing passing yards after the catch, only Arkansas average is better than UK’s 3.44 clip. Both aspects play a large part in UK being one of the SEC’s very best at eliminating big gainers. No SEC defense allows gains of 15+ at a preferable clip than UK’s 6.13% rate, and only Georgia allows a smaller amount of Explosive Plays (passes 20+ yards, runs 10+ yards) than Kentucky’s 9.2%. They make teams earn their yards. On average, UK can hold its own playing this way. But the Missouri game is a stark reminder how this approach can be exploited and flipped on its head.
Stoops’ Troops hold the SEC’s 6th-best Success Rate against the pass and the 7th-best against the run. Both of UK’s Explosive Run and Pass Rates allowed sit inside the conference’s top5. All else considered, that should make sense and back up the good, old-fashioned eye test. Like most defenses, they yearn to get to 3rd Downs and get their opponents off the field. The bend, don’t break style often puts them into crunchy situations hence their league-low 7.65 average yards to gain for opposing offenses. It’s a lot easier to defend when offenses have to gain more real estate.
Sitting back more on average, UK doesn’t see a good amount of early down success stopping folks. Its 52.9% Success Rate falls into the bottom5 despite the Cats’ 5.15 Yards/Play in these spots holding the conference’s bronze medal. Because of this, the Cats hold the SEC’s 5th-worst rate of early down conversions entering Week 7. So while UK wants to force 3rd Downs, opponents avoid them quite well.
On the money down, Kentucky has shown to be better. Big Blue’s 61.7% Success Rate is the SEC’s 6th-best at this point in time. Thanks to the aforementioned flaw of failing to generate a lot of pressure, the Cats fair far worse on 3rd and Long relative to the rest of the conference. On 3rd and 6+, UK’s opponents convert 29.6% of the time, which is the SEC’s 8th-highest. But in crucial short yardage situations (3 yards or less), only Florida and Alabama have donned preferable clips to the Cats’ 47.6% Defensive Success Rate.
At the midway point, UK should puff out its chest about a lot of things it does well defensively. But the underlying shortcomings make this a unit that can be bested by average to subpar offenses depending on matchups and execution despite allowing the SEC’s 2nd-lowest Yards/Play (5.03) and 3rd-lowest Yards/Game (355).
Using ESPN’s SP+ metric, let’s see how UK’s remaining schedule stacks up. We know top5 foes Alabama and Florida will be extremely challenging, but UK will have to upend at least one of them to reach .500.
ESPN’s SP+ is meant to be a prognostication tool based on a team’s past performances. It’s not meant to be a resume tool and doesn’t take into account final margins or whether or not a team was victorious. But here’s creator Bill Connolly’s definition:
“In a single sentence, it’s a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency. I created the system at Football Outsiders in 2008, and as my experience with both college football and its stats has grown, I have made quite a few tweaks to the system.
More than ever, it’s important to note that SP+ is intended to be predictive and forward-facing. It is not a résumé ranking that gives credit for big wins or particularly brave scheduling — no good predictive system is. It is simply a measure of the most sustainable and predictable aspects of football. If you’re lucky or unimpressive in a win, your rating will probably fall. If you’re strong and unlucky in a loss, it will probably rise.”
UK started the year ranked as the nation’s 22nd best team and a 13.0. That translated as: against a dead average team on a neutral field, the Cats would be expected to win by 13 points. Coming into 2020, the SP+ loved UK’s offensive continuity and pegged them as the 34th unit to start the year with Stoops’ Troops coming in at 26th. While the highest preseason rating in this metric in the modern era, the Cats still find themselves on the wrong side of average within the SEC.
While the defense had a rough start, it has settled in at 31st. Both UK’s defensive rating and rank are worse than where it started. But compared to the slide other side of ball has experienced the past month-plus, I’m sure Stoops will take it. Thanks to the passing game’s incompetence, a lack of explosive plays, and scoring souring, UK’s offense ranks 98th. While their offensive rating was 32.1 at the start of September, it has plummeted to 23.8 since. Like the good, old-fashioned eye test told us, Kentucky’s offense is in trouble. Only Missouri’s and Vanderbilt’s defenses are viewed less favorably by the SP+ than the Cats at this point in time within the SEC. Overall, the Cats are middling and are ranked 61st heading into the bye week.
Fortunately for the Kentucky, they get to face the SEC’s worst team directly after the bye. Of the 127 teams currently ranked by the SP+, the Commodores currently rank as the nation’s 7th-worst team and the lowest rated in the Power 5. Devastated by opted outs and an already thin roster, Derek Mason brought on two new coordinators and is starting a true freshman QB. Like their SP+ standing hints, the ‘Dores are damn near the bottom across the board within the conference analytically. While I could go line by line on how poor Vandy has done so far, I’ll leave it at with this: Vandy owns the SEC’s 2nd-highest Turnover Rate (2.96%) and the 2nd-lowest Touchdown Rate (2.22%). So, the ‘Dores are more likely to give the ball away than reach the end zone on any given snap at this point in time. The SP+ likes the Cats by three TDs.
After UK faces the SEC’s worst, it is pegged to play the best. While it’s debatable who the best team in the country is in early November, Alabama is the only remaining team without a loss in the conference and clearly the SEC’s top team. The SP+ gives the edge to Justin Fields and ‘dem Buckeyes over the Crimson Tide but Alabama sports the metric’s No. 1 offense. The defense is no push over either. After all, it’s a Nick Saban Joint. They stand as a top20 unit.
Mac Jones has been keeping that offense humming even if his accuracy his regressed the last couple of games. He still is the most successful and explosive passer in the conference and Najee Harris sports the best EPA/play among SEC running backs. Even without Jaylen Waddle, this unit is and probably will continue to be potent. Keeping it simple, Alabama is top2 in TD Rate and TO Rate while rocking the SEC’s best Explosive Play Rate (16.4%).
While not elite defensively in the SP+, the Tide flaunt a number of exemplary figures relative to their conference contemporaries. Alabama is top3 in forcing 3-and-Outs (35.7%) with the 2nd-best Havoc Rate (20.3%), Success Rate (60.9%), and First Down Rate (23.8%). For an offense teetering on being ranked in the triple-digits, the Tide should have no trouble disrupting the Cats on paper. The SP+ likens the home team to win by about 29 points.
Florida’s offense has been just as efficient as Alabama’s. The Gators are the 2nd-best SEC offense in the eyes of the SP+ and 4th in the nation. While their defense started the year in the top5, it has since dropped to 25th. Looking at some of the metrics, that’s quite generous. But thanks to a point-getting offense, Florida sits as the 5th ranked team in the land per the SP+.
Trask has improved year-over-year in most stat categories. While he lacks top-self arm talent, he still can push it downfield. His 55.6% Deep Accuracy% currently holds the conference’s silver medal entering Week 7. Thanks to a little bit more verticality from the Gators, Trask and his mates are rocking the SEC’s 2nd-best Explosive Pass Rate, which is within a percentage point of Alabama’s. Plus, the Gators’ ground game is efficient and showing fantastic year-over-year gains. Collectively, Florida’s ball carriers lead the SEC in average yards after contact. As far as points/play go, their 0.66 figure is 0.01 behind the Crimson Tide. But no other SEC offense bests the Swamp Dwellers’ 8.27% TD Rate.
The defense has had a rough start to say the least. While they looked better after a couple of bye weeks and teeing off against the SP+’s 103rd ranked offense, Florida’s defense still sits at or near the conference’s floor in plenty of spots. They sport a bottom3 Success Rate (51%), 3rd Down Success Rate (50.9%), Takeaway Rate (2.01%), First Down Rate allowed (29.2%), Red Zone Drive Rate allowed (48.8%), and Run Missed Tackle Rate (36.7%). That said, the SP+ figures Florida swamps the Cats by about 23 points.
Kentucky will need to defend Kroger Field in order to save face this season. While there’s a chance the Cats can upend Florida or Alabama, being projected to lose by three-scores isn’t encouraging. The matchup against the Gamecocks looks to be highly contested. Per the preseason SP+ margins, UK was favored to win by a touchdown. As you can see, the Cates are only projected to prevail by a field goal. For what it’s worth, South Carolina is currently the closest team in the country to the SP+’s definition of an “dead average team”.
Like the Cats, South Carolina is a defensive-orientated team. But the Cocks have had a hard time getting up in SEC play thus far. The SP+ initially ranked them in the top15, but they are now outside the top50. Within the conference, SC’s defense sits inside the bottom 5 in Success Rate (52.7%), Rush Yards Before Contact (2.47), Havoc Rate (16.1%), Explosive Play Rate (13.1%), Pressure Rate (13.7%), Yards/Play and (6.04).
But while the Cats offense started with high expectations, South Carolina wasn’t supposed to be too special on that side of the ball. With the bar lowered, the Cocks have improved compared to their 2019 output. They are more explosive, running the ball better, scoring more points, and are staying on the field longer. Still mediocre in the eyes of the SP+, SCar certainly has the potential to end UK’s SEC slate on a bad note.
Mark Stoops entered this season with an opportunity to be the first UK head coach to boast a winning record on the job in over 50 years. While kicking blunders against Ole Miss and late down defensive woes have so far spoiled UK’s 2020, there still is an outside chance he can accomplish that feat. The Cats improved tremendously after each bye week last season. During the first, UK installed the Lynnsanity Offense. During the second, they found their groove on both sides of the ball.
It remains to be seen if the Cats have enough in the tank to match last year’s turnaround. At least, we now fully know where Kentucky stands among its conference contemporaries.
We know UK’s offense lacks speed, which has enticed foes to crowd the box and make it tougher on UK’s run game. We know Wilson isn’t Bowden as a ball carrier and doesn’t command the same amount of attention that can open up things for UK’s backs. We know UK’s isn’t as explosive due to Bowden’s departure and being softer breaking tackles and generating yards after contact. We know UK overly targets Ali because no other UK pass catcher can be counted upon. We know the Big Blue Wall typically crumbles versus pass rushes. We know UK’s ground game is the engine for this team, and when it fails the Cats falter. We know Chris Rodriguez is significantly UK’s most valuable ball carrier even if he lacks breakaway ability. We know UK likes to target short with plenty of screens, RPOs, and rudimentary pass patterns. We know UK overly leans into Inside Zone run schemes with two power compliments. We know if UK can’t execute its four main looks on the ground, they predictably have little answers.
We know Kentucky struggles to rack up points but defensively is the SEC’s very best on a per drive basis preventing opponent scores. We know the Cats bend and don’t break by being mediocre down-to-down but one of the top disallowing TDs and explosive gains on a per snap basis. While generally iffy against the run, UK holds its own with the 3rd best Success Rate on 3rd and short. We know UK rallies to the ball with great efficiency. We know UK sports the conference’s lowest yards after contact average and only trails Georgia in Run Tackle Rate. We know UK’s defense is passive relative to its peers in terms of generating Havoc. We know the Cats won’t do jack squat down the stretch if the defense can’t continue to create takeaways. We know how Big Blue matches up with its remaining opponents and the projected margins based on the current data. We know reaching a .500 record is a hard task.
What we don’t know is how Kentucky responds following its all-important bye week.
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