The very idea of it still sounds unbelievable. I mean had what transpired at Kentucky this season occurred anywhere else, I am not sure I would entirely be convinced it really happened.
What do you mean they played a wide receiver at quarterback? You’re telling me they made and won a bowl game? And set school rushing records in the process? Well, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
The 2019 UK football season was one of the most impressive turnarounds in program history. Losing not one — but two — starting quarterbacks is enough for most programs to fold and punt on the season. But following the lead of their industry-forged head coach, the Cats dug in and fought for their season. While the offense went through a drastic change, the defense had to play its part as well.
Even with a fairy tale ending, plenty of drama permeated throughout UK’s schedule.
For the heights of this year’s glory to be fully appreciated, we must first reflect on the low valleys of the opening five weeks of the season. Let’s transport back to a more tumultuous time. I’m not talking about Paris in the early summer of 1789 but rather week 6 of this college football season.
UK was entering its first bye week directly after a sour three-game losing streak at the hands of conference foes. Both of UK’s top passing options were not at 100% as its primary starter was already a month into his year-long stint on the injured list with a separated knee cap and stopgap Sawyer Smith was battling numerous injuries that great affected his ability to throw accurately.
The defense looked undermanned and the offense looked overwhelmed. The little momentum the Cats had starting the year 2-0 against a pair of MAC schools easily dissipated by the time they limped into the bye to lick their wounds.
Heading into the first bye, UK’s offense averaged 377 yards/game and under 5.5 yards per run and per pass. Their total offense in this span ranked 12th within the SEC, and only Vanderbilt had a worse yards/play clip. The defense allowed 417 yards/game on average to the three SEC offenses it faced despite playing the second least amount of defensive snaps within the SEC the first six weeks of the season.
When Wilson went down, Co-offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw shifted their focus from a zone read scheme to something more “professional”. While running the ball was still what UK’s offense did best, the tandem in charge of the X’s and O’s wanted to take to the skies with Smith. For a staff that has traditionally been patient, reserved, and — dare I say — conservative, they abandoned the ground attack earlier and more often, especially if UK was facing a deficit on the scoreboard.
In the three games with Smith as starter, UK passed on 52.8% of their 1st Downs - a significant increase from 46.2% against the two MAC schools. The rise in competition coupled with dwindling returns caused UK’s Success Rate in these spots to shrink from 53.9% to 34.8%. While the Cats had been the SEC’s third best on firsts the first two weeks, they plummeted to last place from weeks 3-6.
Overall, the Cats had one of the higher Pass Rates in the SEC at 56.4% the first six weeks. Yet, only 36.4% of attempts resulted in successful plays. If you do something a lot and you are not particularly good at it, odds are you yourself will not be good. As we know, Kentucky’s offense was not good during this spell.
Besides their yards/game, UK’s offense sat in the bottom-five of the conference in a number of important areas like Offensive Success Rate, Touchdown Rate, and Turnover Rate. In other words, UK was one of the worst offenses in the conference down-to-down, lacked scoring plays, and turned it over way too much; very hard to win under those circumstances.
After all, UK’s attack was rather narrow. They wanted to stick to their basic run tactics and force touches to Lynn Bowden no matter how heavy-handed or deliberate it seemed at times to do so. Defenses appeared to be content allowing Bowden eat and make an occasional play so long Kentucky’s rushing attack was completely neutralized.
Even though the Cats were top 4 in the conference in average Yards Before Contact on their carries, they had a middling Success Rate and Explosive Run Rate - or percentage of runs that net 10 or more yards. While these figure’s don’t light the world on fire, they far exceeded UK’s passing numbers in this span.
Kentucky simply lacked a receiving corps that could carry the load. Opponents were very much aware of that. Three Cats ranked in the bottom 10 in the SEC in yards/target heading into UK’s first bye. Bowden was one of those three.
Even he struggled to play efficiently despite the copious targets that went his way. Despite leading the SEC in targets the first six weeks at the season with 58, his Success Rate was 41.4%, which is about 9 percentage points below the conference average. Ahmad Wagner was the only Cat with a Catching Success Rate above 50% and that was largely by him going above and beyond hauling in high difficulty chances.
Smith’s scattershot passing correlates to this. While it’s not fair to completely make him a scapegoat, there’s no denying he handcuffed Kentucky’s offense and he simply wasn’t fully healthy. Certainly UK’s scheme — that’s more about winning one on one rather than coverage beating concepts — fell flat with subpar receivers and a banged-up quarterback.
Smith was the only SEC passer with an average distance to gain on his throws over ten yards (FWIW Wilson’s clip was the second highest). Only Tennessee’s Brian Maurer and Ole Miss’s John Rhys Plumlee had higher average depths of target - or how far his man is downfield when thrown the ball - than Smith, whose clip was over 2.5 yards higher than the SEC average.
From above, I’m sure you can ascertain the figures that come next are not going to be so great. But from weeks 1-6 in the SEC, Smith was in the bottom-3 in Yards/Attempt, Accuracy%, Depth Adjusted Accuracy%, Interceptable Pass Rate, First Down+Touchdown Rate, and Uncatchable Pass Rate. As I hinted, his degree of difficulty was often higher with the Cats playing behind the chains with a bland run game. I mean, just look at his passing chart above. Not a whole lot of circles (catches) beyond ten yards downfield.
Errant throws, low percentage chances, a severe lacking in splash plays, and a run game that offered little solace permeated UK’s offense in Weeks 4 and 5 and offered very little hope for the back-half of the schedule.
As much as UK’s offense was exhibiting traits of excrement, its defense failed to rose-scent the team’s overall outlook. The growing pains of replacing seven defensive starters were gruesome to watch.
Against their first three SEC opponents, UK’s defense fell within the SEC’s five worst in Three-and-Out Rate, Takeaway Rate, and Touchdown rate in addition to yards/game. The Cats were in the bottom three in overall Defensive Success Rate, Tackle-for-Loss Rate, Explosive Play Allowed Rate, and Havoc rate — a disgustingly frustrating display considering those offenses UK faced displayed major flaws in hindsight.
Regardless of conference, it’s never a good look for a defensive-minded and hard-nosed coach like Stoops to perform poorly in the trenches. While UK’s O-Line was winning in spots, UK’s front seven was getting manhandled by seemingly everyone they played.
Looking solely at their performances against Florida, Mississippi State, and South Carolina, Kentucky’s defense had the fifth-worst Yards Before Contact average (2.11) of SEC defenses against conference opponents. If it wasn’t for Vanderbilt, UK would be dead last in Yards After Contact with a 4.53 clip. These shortcomings defending the run would improve but still remained major issues throughout the season.
Departing from Columbia after a humbling defeat in week 5 forlorn and somber, Stoops had clarity. What the Cats displayed earlier that night would not cut it. He knew something had to be done if Kentucky’s season was to be saved. His defense stunk, but improvement on that side of the ball simply wouldn’t matter if UK’s offense remained muted and ineffective. Rather than sticking with the status quo, Stoops made one of the boldest coaching in recent memory and went all in on his best player.
Despite Lynn Bowden’s home run ability, he was never a refined receiver. His routes weren’t crisp, he dropped too many balls, and wasn’t good enough to rise above the level of his passers. Bowden was a high-volume target and rarely put up efficient numbers. UK’s staff never undersold his explosiveness and desperately aimed to maximize his big play ability. Kentucky just couldn’t figure out ways to get him the ball effectively under the current structure of the scheme.
Out of desperation, Kentucky chose to cutout the middle man and supplant Smith behind center with Bowden. To borrow a Coach Cal colloquialism, Kentucky rebooted everything at the bye week. UK had three immediate chances to right its ship and keep their bowl hopes alive before its next off week.
No matter what, UK was going to go down swinging playing physically on the ground with its most dynamic player taking snaps. After all, passing that much never seemed to mesh well with Stoops’ preferred modus operandi. He relishes pushing defenses around and running tough.
The first month of Lynnsanity had mixed results. Going from the SEC’s fifth most pass-happy offense to the least was bound to create some potholes. Above all, the Cats were able accomplish Priority One and win some ballgames. But their efficiency failed to improve like they had hoped.
Kentucky took major steps back in Success Rate with their overall, passing, and rushing clips significantly worsening over the first month with Bowden in the backfield. While most assumed UK’s Passing Success Rate would take a hit with a wideout quarterbacking the offense, most figured the run game would be more efficient.
The straightforward approach saw the Cats’ Rushing Success Rate dip ten percentage during the first three games of Lynnsanity. But as intended, the Cats started having more and more explosive gains on the ground. So while they remained bad down-to-down, Bowden gave the unit more potency. UK shot up from an average SEC explosive offense to the best in a matter of weeks.
Since week 7 — the very week Lynnsanity was implemented — no SEC offense has been more explosive than Kentucky. Not LSU’s Air Raid. Not Alabama’s cavalcade of pass catchers. No one. Plus when looking at explosive runs only, UK’s 79 is 16 more than the next closest offense in the conference after week 7. In its first three games, the Lynnsanity Offense sparked 23 explosive carries.
Despite the potency and big-play potential, the offense that was already easy to pinpoint became even easier to nail down-to-down for defensive coordinators. UK’s offense, already prone to suffering three-and-outs, dropped from 10th to last in the SEC from weeks 7-10.
UK’s pecking order went from Bowden to AJ Rose to Kavosiey Smoke. While its abundantly obvious Bowden was utilized differently and is cut from a different cloth from those two, Rose and Smoke have similar styles. Neither provided much support for UK’s ground game in this stretch.
From weeks 7-10, neither posted numbers that merited more touches. In that span among SEC rushers, they both had a below average Yards/Carry, average yards after contact, Broken Tackle Rate, Negative Run Rate, and Explosive Run Rate. Even with Bowden being the primary option running the ball, neither could make the most of their chances. Smoke’s and Rose’s Rushing Success Rate ranked 27th and 28th, respectfully out of 34 qualifying SEC ball carriers. With the extra attention Bowden was receiving from opponents, someone else had to step up and be a reliable second option on the ground.
Even though the Cats struggled to win situationally, big plays were leading to points. And, the points were leading to victories. Though the increase in Touchdown Rate was marginal, UK jumped four spots in the rankings from weeks 7-10. Lynnsanity also saw a big drop in turnover worthy plays that nuked their slim margin of error when Smith was in there. UK’s Turnover Rate of 2.6% from their first five games dropped to 1.76%, which was the conference median in this span.
I’ll circle back to talk about the exact schematics later. But while the high RPO Rate remained for this offense, Bowden only attempted two RPO passes between Kentucky’s bye weeks. Instead of crafting up clever screens or tagging man-beating routes via RPOs for Bowden to get easy completions, UK’s staff opted to let their aerial assault live on a wing and a prayer. As BBN saw, few found their mark.
From weeks 7-10, No SEC passer had a higher average depth of target than Bowden. His clip of 18.6 yards almost doubled the conference average. In the same span, Bowden’s passing ranks in the SEC’s bottom 3 in Completion%, Accuracy%, and Depth-Adjusted% percentage, while being in the bottom five in Success Rate with the sixth worst First Down+Touchdown Rate.
With a drastic increase in focus, clocks had no issue bleeding out once Kentucky went Lynnsane. UK’s number of plays/game has noticeably shrunk. Before their first bye, the Cats ran the SEC’s eighth most plays with 69.2 per game. From week 7-10, the Cats averaged 56.7 offensive plays per game, which was the fewest in the SEC. This, like their explosiveness, was a trait that didn’t go away as the season progressed.
Fixing the offense was one thing. But there’s no way in hell Kentucky could ground and pound if it didn’t have a defense that could win its battles. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to set up to run 60 times a game if you’re constantly clawing from behind.
Stoops immediately shored up areas that influence ballgames. While weather elements certainly played their part, UK’s defense vastly improved its Three-and-Out Rate Forced, Havoc Rate, Touchdown Rate Allowed, and Takeaway Rate.
UK was very advantageous with its schedule during this stretch. Arkansas was the worst team in the SEC, Georgia was far from its usual self and hosted the Cats in a car wash, and Missouri was plummeting fast and furiously. UK’s defense wasted no time taking care of business and played with urgency.
Between weeks 7-10, the Cats’ Defensive Success Rate climbed eight percentage points and their Three-and-Out Rate Forced nearly doubled. No other SEC defense against conference opponents was better at generating takeaways than Big Blue. UK’s Takeaway Rate exceeded their Touchdown Rate Allowed clip by 20% (Meaning UK was that much more likely to cause a turnover than allowing six points).
Limiting scoring, generating havoc, and creating extra possession while winning the explosive play battle fueled Kentucky even if its offense wasn’t winning consistently down-to-down.
The second act of a play its often the most dark and filled with conflict. Most refer to the end of act 2 as the “all is lost” moment where the core characters are at their lowest points before ascending towards a final climax. From the ashes or hellish circumstances, heroes usually arise. Glory isn’t the same without a little adversity.
Kentucky’s second act had much more of a purgatory feel to it. The Cats got back to 4-4 but still were a massively flawed and inefficient team. The Cats weren’t downright bad like they had been but still had miles to go if they wanted to accomplish anything worthwhile in 2019. With a final act yet to be played out and their story unfinished, the Cats entered their second bye week with much different goals than it had a month prior. Noticeable momentum was starting to build.
For the first month of Lynnsanity, there was no certainty the Bowden-fueled backfield would be a long term fix. With Sawyer Smith nursing a pair of injuries, there was no rush to throw him back in the fold. The Cats already saw what a less-than-healthy Smith brought to the table. So at least for a short stint, that offense was meant to stop the bleeding until the Cats could regroup.
When Kentucky exited its second by week in week 10, there was no doubt Lynnsanity was here to stay. The efficiency numbers were not entirely great, but there was no denying the energy and zeal Bowden gave the team. The month prior, the new offense was definitely experimental. Heading into the final stanza of the season, this was now UK’s identity.
Week by week, the players became more and more confident, which aided preparation and on-field execution. Believe me, plays work a lot better when players are invested in the outcome rather than literally going through the motions. Little by little, the offense added a look here and a wrinkle there that made their Pachycephalosaurus-esque attack less predictable.
Sure the Tennessee game was a classic showing of UK football. The Cats blew a halftime lead, allowed Jarrett Guarantano to rally the Vols off the bench, and UK failed to score on their methodical last-minute drive. But as horrible as the taste of that loss was for BBN, it would be the last hard pill to swallow in 2019.
As we know, the Cats won out, made a bowl, Lynn Bowden won the Paul Hornung Award, and UK’s offensive line finished inside Pro Football Focus’s Top 5.
Boat-racing Vanderbilt, UT Martin, and Louisville thrusted UK’s numbers upward. During this stretch, the Lynnsanity offense played it best ball. While earlier it had failed to be a consistent winner down-to-down, it now was checking all the boxes. Now, it bears mentioning that all three defenses finished the regular season rated no better than 93rd in ESPN’s SP+ metric. Kentucky’s stretch from weeks 12-14 was far from a gauntlet on the gridiron.
Still, UK’s production during their final leg cannot be ignored. From week 11 on, UK’s Overall Success Rate increased by 33.7%, their Explosive Play Rate increased by 12.7%, their Touchdown Rate increased by 74.5%, and their Yards/Play increased by 30.8% compared to the first month of Lynnsanity. Only Alabama and LSU had better Success Rates and Yard/Play clips within the conference since week 11. The Tide were the only other ones in the SEC more explosive than the Cats down-to-down.
No SEC team limited havoc plays or averaged more run yards before contact than Kentucky down the stretch. From week 11 on, Kentucky averaged 3.70 rush yards before contact - a third of a yard better than the next closest SEC team LSU. UK’s Big Blue Wall bruised fronts and paved wide run lane as no other offense in the conference had a Run Havoc Rate Allowed under 20%.
Once the O-Line was put in the limelight and challenged to fuel UK’s new approach, they answered the bell. With Lynnsanity, the Cats averaged a yard more before contact than their production the first five games of the year while decreasing their Negative Run Rate and increasing their Explosive Run Rate.
During this stretch, UK’s staff also managed Bowden’s passing situations better. Between their bye weeks, Bowden led the SEC in average depth of target and had the lowest RPO Throw and Screen Rates. Instead of facilitating, Kentucky’s offensive coaches highlighted a shortcoming by making his job much more difficult. It’s hard enough to be accurate throwing deep downfield in general. The ante gets upped if you lack deep threats, run a crappy scheme, and are dead tired from running the ball essentially every snap.
While RPOs are reactionary and coaches cannot predetermine where the ball will go due to their very nature, Bowden was coached up to take an easy completion here or there off of them down the stretch. UK’s already high RPO Rate topped 30% in their last five games, which only trailed Auburn's 38% clip in that span within the SEC.
Sure, Kentucky didn’t deviate too much from its bombs-away mentality when put behind the chains on thirds. Bowden still led the SEC in average depth of target from weeks 11 on, but his clip was seven yards less than it was between the byes.
This was entirely so due to the increased RPO targets being given some screen attempts. Over UK’s last five games, Bowden’s RPO Throw Rate was 16.2% and his Screen Rate was 10.8% — good for the fourth and fifth highest clips in that time within the SEC. Reminder from weeks 7-10, Bowden only had two throws off RPOs with zero true screen attempts.
While never a focal point, these outlets took some concentration off Bowden and helped get others involved in UK’s gameplan. Lowering his ADOT with these screens and RPOs helped Lynn’s Passing Success Rate climb from 30.9% to 35% week 11 on. That’s still bad but undeniably less sucky.
Outside of helping Bowden get easy completions, RPOs aided the Cats’ run game. Since the second bye week, Kentucky called 246 designed runs with 51.2% of them being successful while averaging 8.07 yards/carry. Sure, those figures are impressive by themselves. But tagging more routes on their read options made UK’s attack more deadly. While only a third of their carries used RPOs, UK’s Success Rate rose to 54.3% and their Yards/Attempt on the ground ticked up over three yards when route tags were attached to runs plays.
By giving them slightly more attention with a target to two per game, safeties got caught with their pants down more often. For someone who was screaming for this to take place in the early stages of Lynnsanity, I was very pleased to see these show up.
Since their second bye week, UK started to work redshirt freshman Chris Rodriguez into the rotation. Rodriguez didn’t disappoint. More than 75% of his yards and 67% of his carries came over the UK’s last five games. While his volume numbers are okay, advanced analytics are in love with “Baby Benny.”
Of SEC ball carriers with at least 40 designed carries, CRod finished the year with the conference’s third best Yards/Carry (7.51), best average after contact (4.62), second best Broken Tackle Rate (46.5%), lowest Negative Run Rate (2.82%), fifth best Explosive Run Rate, and sixth best First Down+Touchdown Rate. Not too shabby for a youngster, would you say?
Rodriguez’s bashing running style gave the Cats a skill set they previously lacked. While AJ Rose and Kavosiey Smoke aren’t pushovers, they are not as suited to pound the interior of front sevens like CRod is.
Rose and Smoke also saw their play increase since UK’s second bye. Despite both being below average across the board from weeks 7-10 within the SEC, Rose and Smoke performed much better over UK’s last five games.
While Rose found tough sledding with a low yard before contact average that no doubt kept his Rushing Success Rate low, he squirted out of plenty of tackles. His 44.2% Broken Tackle Rate since week 11 was fifth best in the SEC. Rose was able to turn these hidden yards into big gains. No SEC player averaged more yards after contact and his Explosive Run Rate was Top 10 in this span.
Smoke still played “soft” and didn’t do much if a hole wasn't there for him. But thanks to the Big Blue Wall, he was given plenty of room after the second bye week. He sported a Top 10 Rushing Success Rate, First Down+Touchdown Rate, and Yards/Carry since week 11 within the conference.
And then there’s Lynn Bowden. What Bowden has done this year might not ever be replicated at Kentucky. Outside of the terrific volume figures, Bowden emerged as one of the most effective ball carriers around.
Sure, he had more rush yards and averaged more per touch on the ground than anyone else in the SEC. For most fans, that’s enough ammunition. But, you should expect a run-heavy offense like Kentucky’s to accumulate loads of rush yards. And Bowden did plenty of that since Lynnsanity was installed. While leading the SEC in average yards before contact, he also owned a Top 5 average after contact. Still, Bowden’s advanced metrics should make creative professional offensive minds race with possibilities.
No other player in the conference with at least 40 carries has a Top 10 Yards/Carry, Success Rate, Explosive Run Rate, First Down+Touchdown Rate, Negative Run Rate, or average after contact clip. Not Najee Harris. Not DeAndre Swift. Not Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Not even Kylin Hill. Bowden is the only one. To have those rates paired with the volume of touches he’s received just isn’t common.
While the offense fired on all cylinders after its second bye week, the defense continued its upward trajectory as well. Granted, the highest rated offense they faced since week 11 was Louisville at 32nd. Every other opponent was 60th or worse heading into bowl season.
Kentucky’s defense held its final four Power 5 opponents to Success Rates of 37.8%, 34.7%, 35.7%, and 42%. The national average Success Rate in 2019 was 42% (43.6% within the SEC). All four failed to score more than 30, and all four failed to gain more than 330 total yards.
Stoops’ defense stuck with what was working. They continued to align their safeties out of the box and dare teams to run on them. While they still displayed poor tackling and let up a number of explosive gains, UK closed out the year Top 5 in the conference in Defensive Success Rate, Havoc Rate, Three-and-Out Forced Rate, Touchdown Rate allowed, Takeaway Rate, and Yards/Play allowed.
By the archaic metrics, Kentucky finished 21st in Total Defense, 37th in Yards/Play allowed, 37th in Sacks/game, and 27th in Red Zone Defense. Considering where this unit was after five games, I’m sure every BBNer will gladly take those results.
Looking at their play specifically against SEC offenses, UK is in some dignified company. Only Florida and Georgia limited SEC offenses to fewer yards per game on the season with no one being better in that regard than the Cats since week 7. No defense played less snaps per game within conference play, which certainly helped limit conference opponent’s production. With Lynnsanity running the ball, milking the clock, and providing scoring support, Kentucky’s defense simply was on the field far less than their conference contemporaries. With less downs, the defense was able to play harder further into ball games.
The first five games were a tragedy. The middle three were a revelation. The final five were a triumph. The three acts of UK’s season all offered different levels of adversity. While those challenges made for a much stressful viewing experience, the Cats took those tests on full tilt. With how Kentucky responded with their play, 2019 was going to be a memorable one no matter how the final chapter was written. Still, BBN is ecstatic this football season concluded with a happy ending.
While you can appreciate the narrative of the 2019 season on its face, its so much more enjoyable in my eyes if you understand the through lines. It’s somewhat akin to watching a foreign film without subtitles. We can get the basic gist of the story, but are left overly blind to the details.
We all know UK ran the ball a lot. But do you know what UK was doing out there other than just allowing Bowden and Co. run around each Saturday?
Let’s chalk some up of these concepts and talk about them a little. Most will have links to brief “Gridiron 101” videos I produced that should help enlighten casual fans on these looks if my writing fails to do the trick. Onward!
1. Inside Zone Slam Read: 21.1% Play Share 8.33 Y/A 50.5% Success Rate
With or without Lynn Bowden at quarterback, Inside Zone Slam Reads were UK’s favorite play in 2019. Inside Zone Reads initially aim to hit the B-gap between the guard and tackle. But due to the zone blocking scheme, multiple run alleys can arise, which isn’t the case for gap or power schemes. Based on what a key defender does determines whether the QB keeps the ball or hands it off to his back towards the zone action. If that key crashes, it’s a pull. If the key stays pat, it’s a give.
Slam Reads were less productive the first five games of the season. While they still led the Cats in number of calls and total yards, Slam Reads only averaged 5.91 yards/carry on a 46.8% Success Rate. Lynnsanity really executed this look well down the stretch. Despite a putrid 29% Success Rate on these from weeks 7-9, Slam Reads finished 2019 with a Success Rate over 50% thanks to otherworldly execution from the Lynnsanity Offense the final five games. Playing against three consecutive defenses rated 93rd or worse in the eyes of ESPN’s SP+ certainly helped the sledding. Most of the 21 explosive carries off Slam Reads utilized RPOs. All in all, over a fifth of Inside Zone Slam Reads gained ten or more yards.
While they weren’t targeted all that much, route tags were often attached to these reads. These RPOs consisted of slot bubble screens, wideout tunnel screens, all hitches, the Stick concept, and occasionally slants. Despite Bowden not giving them much attention, the tagged routes helped fuel big gains.
Naturally, Inside Zone Slam Reads lead UK’s script across all downs. While their Success Rate was seven percentage point worse than their overall clip on first downs, Slam Reads were at their best on thirds. There, the look averaged 10.2 yards per pop with eight of its ten tries resulting in a conversion.
2. Inside Zone Bluff Read: 8.19% Play Share, 6.95 Y/A, 30.8% Success Rate
“Bluff” is a terminology some staffs use to label split zone actions. Split Zones are just like ordinary Inside Zone Slams other than one critical difference. On these, an offset tight end or full back will block against the grain of the zone flow to set a hard edge on the backside. Doing so allows the five best blockers to work playside while still creating a hard-edge cutback lane.
In the read game, Bluffs generate more quarterback keeps within the SEC. The offset blocker often becomes a personal protector for the QB on their keeps that often result in chunk plays. This dynamic makes them more successful than their concept counterpart within the conference. As far as Lynnsanity is concerned, this was one of their worst looks that received heavy volume. For years, split zones were the foundation of UK’s attack with Benny Snell. But in 2019, this look just didn’t cut it.
Lynnsanity due to its big play DNA busted a few big gainers off of them. But a 30.8% Success Rate since week 7 quickly quells any love for this look. During the first stanza of the season, these were one of the Cats best designs. The concept’s 57.9% Success Rate was the only play clip among UK’s Top 5 most called looks during that span to finish above 47%. Remember, not a whole lot of stuff was working early on. But Bluff Reads provided steadiness.
Even in the read game, split zones failed to deliver. The second most called play before the first bye week, non-read Inside Split Zones, only averaged 3.26 on a pedestrian 40.7% Success Rate. Kentucky only called 11 of these in Lynnsanity for obvious reasons. Since week 7, Lynnsanity barely averaged over 2.9 yards per carry running them on a 36.4% Success Rate.
If the reads and non-reads of split zone looks were combined, they would account of over 10% of Lynnsanity’s plays. Despite the disappointing returns, Gran’s affinity for this look won in the end. Thankfully the other concepts that received a healthy share of calls came through more often than these.
No other look among UK’s most called had a Success Rate south of 42%. On 1st Downs, especially, this looked sucked. Inside Zone Bluff Reads only were successful on about a fourth of its chances on those downs since week 7. Thanks to the volume of touches they got, they accumulated the second most yards of any concept since then.
3. Counters: 6.93% Play Share, 4.52 Y/A, 42.4% Success Rate
With the great majority of UK’s run plays designed to attack the same holes, incorporating a number of misdirections off of them was a must for Lynnsanity. We’ll get into more of them later, but traditional Counters received the third most calls of any concept since week 7. These old school designs are no-nonsense misdirections that aim to bash over-anxious defensive fronts.
The most basic Counter in today’s game pulls the backside guard and offset tight end or fullback. The guard’s job is to set the edge; the other’s job is to lead block through the hole. The rest of the line sells the zone action, which functionally operate as down blocks that are necessary to forge the run lane.
Lynnsanity called both QB and back counters. But of the 31 repped since week 7, 23 of them were for Bowden. Designed to start a set of downs or pick up tough yardage, Counters had the lowest yards/carry average of any of UK’s top looks and only Inside Zone Bluff Reads had a lower Success Rate. While they were not so good on later downs, Counters’ Success Rate and yards/carry both exceeded its overall clips on firsts. UK averaged 5.24 yards/carry with 52.4% of their tries being successful.
Bowden’s plays often had eye candy bubble screens or flair motions from the backs to potentially distract or attract backers in the box outward so there’d be more room to run between the tackles.
4. Inverted Power Veer: 5.67% Play Share, 8.26 Y/A, 51.9% Success Rate
Even before Lynnsanity, UK would sporadically sprinkle in an Inverted Power Veer to get their QB involved in the run game or help their backs hit the edge. As hinted earlier, such a heavy zone read scheme needs ample misdirections to keep defenses honest. Well, veers certainly help provide another look.
Unlike normal read options that call for the two potential ball carriers to travel to opposite sides of the center, veers send both to the same. Plus, there’s another twist. Normally, the back is the ball carrier who attacks inside while the QB heads towards the edge. On veers, that’s swapped. Inverted Power Veers ask the QB to get north and south by hitting a power run lane set by a backside pulling guard with the back threatening towards the sideline. By overloading one side of the formation, power run lanes can quickly open up if the defense isn’t prepared.
Kentucky executed these quite well. Over half of them were successful overall. Most of its yards came off two big gainers. Though this look wasn’t overly explosive, thanks to a 40-yard in the UT Martin game and a that 60-yard touchdown run against Louisville this concept racked up the fourth most yardage for the Cats since week 7 with 223.
Lynnsanity dialed up 15 additional Power Toss wrinkles. Veers proved to be far more effective and efficient for Lynnsanity than tosses. Power Toss Reads only averaged 3.6 yards/carry on a 40% Success Rate.
Functionally, these plays are the exact same as Inverted Power Veers other than the meshpoint between the QB and the back. Rather than crossing the quarterback’s face on the way to hitting the edge, the back — aligned pre-snap distal to the formation — runs a toss path instead. Nothing else changes. While the two looks vary only slightly, their productions were miles apart since week 7. In the end just under 9% of Lynnsanity’s plays were these two looks.
5. Tackle Counter Reads: 4.41% Play Share, 12.4 Y/A, 61.9% Success Rate
Like their traditional Counters, Kentucky called a fair amount of Tackle Counter Reads for both Bowden and his backs. These are members of the power read family. Tackle Counters operate just like traditional Counters. The obvious difference between the two is that instead of an offset tight end or fullback acting as a second puller, the tackle does.
Lynnsanity leaned on two primary Tackle Counter Reads. We’ll start with the more ordinary Tackle and Guard design. TAG Counter Reads accounted for eight of the 22 looks this concept received since week 7. Only two of carries gained more than ten yards — at least one of them went for a 63-yard score.
The other wrinkle was far more explosive. Seemingly borrowing a look from Ole Miss’s heavy Q-run scheme, Kentucky combined a Tackle and Guard Counter for the QB with a naked toss to threaten the edge. Like most read options, the key defender is the end man on the line of scrimmage. The QB will look to run the counter unless the key crashes with the pulling tackle.
With such a unique design, this look is bound to have some interesting names from staff to staff. When preparing for Kentucky, Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt labeled the play as “peanut butter” in film sessions. My name for is, as you can see, is far more clunky.
No other concept among Kentucky’s most called had a higher yards/attempt. Of the 14 reps this look received during Lynnsanity, seven gained at least ten yards and two gained over 30. In terms of Success Rate, only the next concept had a higher clip among their favorites than Tackle Counter Reads.
6. Keeper Counter: 3.99% Play Share, 11.1 Y/A, 73.7% Success Rate
All of the previously mentioned Counters use pullers. Not this one. I’ll be honest, the first time I ever caught this look was in week 7 against Arkansas. But upon doing some film work preparing for the College Football Playoff, I became aware Oklahoma called this variety from time to time for Jalen Hurts.
Unlike the Counter plays I talked about above, this is a version where no backside blockers pull to set up the edge for the ball carrier. That role is taken on by the back. Yes, the back. But there’s another twist. Not only is the back the trapper, but he does so AFTER faking an inside zone path.
Let’s back up a bit for a second. As aforementioned, Lynnsanity’s favorite look was the Inside Zone Slam Read. So this kind of design is perfect for countering defenses expecting that. By “meshing” with the QB and with the OL blocking a normal inside zone flow, all is left for the back to do is bend back and set the edge for the QB keeper. You can probably guess why I decided to name this look a Keeper Counter.
Since week 7, no other look that received regular reps ended with a better Success Rate with only Tackle Counter Reads having a higher yards/attempt. From the very first game their appeared for Lynnsanity, Keeper Counters have been a great source for explosive gains. Over a fourth of these went for explosive gains including gains of 51, 40, and 32. At the end of the day, Keeper Counters accounted for 210 yards — good for 5th most of any concept in the Lynnsanity scheme.
7. Inside Zone Triple Option: 3.78% Play Share, 9.23 Y/A, 44.4% Success Rate
Both Inside Zone Slam and Bluff reads posted subpar returns over the the first month of Lynnsanity. Rather than just fading the concepts all together, Eddie Gran decided to get a bit more aggressive by deciding to call these reads out of two-back sets utilizing an additional runner in the process.
Kentucky rarely went to two-back formations during the first month of Lynnsanity with only seven plays being out of 20 or 21 personnel. After the second bye, two-back sets were used on over 10% of Kentucky’s plays.
While down-to-down these were middling in terms of success, they still averaged over nine yards per touch. Over 36% of Inside Zone Triple Options gained ten yards or more with and additional 21% going over 20.
Triples were their most effective on 1st Downs. There, the look’s Success Rate ticked up to 50% on 11.8 yards per pop. Despite not having a single rep from weeks 7-9, Inside Zone Triple Options ended with 167 yards, the sixth-most of any concept.
8. Other Notable Looks
Other than Triples, Lynnsanity had two other option designs of note: the Stretch Option and Nakie Option. Stretch Options are blocked like a normal Outside Zone Stretch besides leaving a key defender untouched to pitch off of.
I’ll be blunt, Stretch Options were not a good play overall. Only four of the play’s 12 reps were successful. Failing to be clutch ultimately soured this concept. A number of them blew up in UK’s face (think the last play of the Tennessee game) on later downs. Only Inside Zone Slam Reads received more 3rd Down reps than Stretch Options’ seven. Only two tries resulted in conversions.
Nakie Options were also a later down go-to for Lynnsanity down the stretch. All six were called on the money down with five resulting in conversions. Nakies were far better than Stretch Options as they nearly doubled the latter’s yards/attempt clip.
Functionally, Nakie Options operate like old Speed Options with the line down blocking and setting hard edges. Nakie Options initially fake a normal Inside Zone Read mesh. The back takes a step or two towards the QB like he normally would on those plays but then darts back towards the outside. The QB then attacks downhill and starts the option. The line sells the faux zone action which results in said down blocks setting the perimeter of the run lane.
While seldom, QB Draws were effective. Five of the six QB Draws resulted in success including all three in the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech. Despite the low amount of reps, these totaled the eighth most yards with 121; 95 of those yard came on 3rd Down.
I guess I should talk a little about Lynnsanity’s passing game. Overall, Kentucky’s passing game is largely matchup based. Guys are rarely schemed open and are often asked to beat the man across from them. With a receiving corps that’s largely not up to snuff, that’s an odd way to operate. This mentality didn’t deviate once Lynn Bowden slid over to quarterback.
Rather than deploying West Coast concepts that are built on shorter completions that aim to get guys going after the catch, Lynnsanity lived and died by the deep ball through the air. Like I mentioned, it very rarely worked out.
Shot plays including fades and isolated deep routes in addition to All Vert patterns combined to see 24 targets or about a fourth of Bowden’s attempts. As you can see from the above breakdown of Lynnsanity’s passing game, neither look finished with satisfying Success Rates.
The rest of the passing game was mostly basic designs and rudimentary routes. All Curls and Spacing plays, Seam+Sideline combos, Slants and Utah — or tap — passes along with RPO outlets aren’t exactly the most exotic patterns to dial up. While the staff could’ve been more creative giving Bowden easier completions, they were overly content with these simple plays. But as we know, passing took the backseat.
Despite being rather pass-happy over its first five games, the Lynnsanity Offense ushered in rushing results never seen before in Lexington. Kentucky set school records for total rushing yards in a game, per carry average in a game, and total ground yards in a season.
Bowden will head to the pros but the core pieces of this offense including their Big Blue Wall will be back. Due the the success this scheme has had and the similar characteristics of Terry Wilson and incoming transfer quarterback Joey Gatewood, I think it would be very wise for Gran and Co. to stick with this way of playing moving forward.
Besides being an effective way to play that maximizes their roster’s strengths, playing physically with a run-first attack gives Kentucky an identity as a gritty, pugnacious football team. By knowing who they are and what they’re good at, the Cats play more confidently.
Sure, it remains to be seen what Big Blue does in terms of X’s and O’s moving forward. But at least they have a solid sample size in favor of this M.O. 2019 was a Lynnsane season in Lexington. Even if the plays remain the same next year, there will be no player like Lynn Bowden.