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Grading Kentucky’s performance through 4 weeks

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The Cats are 4-0, but it hasn’t always been pretty.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

The Kentucky Wildcats are a third of the way through the 2021 season, a perfect 4-0 after they defeated the South Carolina Gamecocks on the road last Saturday.

Despite being unbeaten, there has been both a lot of good and bad from the Wildcats this season.

At times, the offense has looked every bit as explosive as fans have dreamed of after last season’s brutal offensive struggles. However, turnovers and two rough weeks have slowed down the love affair with new offensive coordinator Liam Coen.

Defensively, UK struggled against Missouri and at times against Chattanooga but shut down Louisiana Monroe and South Carolina.

Finally, on special teams, Matt Ruffolo has been solid in the kicking game, but musical chairs at punter has hurt the team in the field position battle, and the return units have produced nothing thus far.

With all that said, here’s a look at how all three of Kentucky’s units have faired so far this season with an overall grade on their performance.

Offense

The first two weeks of the season, Kentucky’s offense looked borderline unstoppable.

In Week 1, they totaled 564 yards of offense, with quarterback Will Levis throwing for 367 yards in just three quarters. Week 2 against Missouri, the Cats managed 519 yards of offense with 340 of those in the run game.

However, in their 28-23 win at home over FCS foe Chattanooga, the Wildcats offense only scored 21 points (seven scored by the defense), as they managed 356 yards. Last Saturday in South Carolina, they scored just one touchdown and 16 total points in a game that saw them manage 332 yards with Levis throwing for just 102.

The biggest problem for the offense has been turning the ball over. In total, the Wildcats have turned the ball over 11 times in just the four games, with five Levis interceptions and six fumbles lost.

Two of those lost fumbles were by Josh Ali at South Carolina. Both running back Kavosiey Smoke and backup quarterback Beau Allen lost fumbles in the Cats’ Week 1 matchup with ULM, Chris Rodriguez lost a fumble Week 2 vs. Missouri, and Levis lost a fumble against Chattanooga.

In total, the Wildcats have fumbled 12 times, with starting running back Chris Rodriguez leading the team with three fumbles.

All in all, Kentucky’s offense has proved they’re far more explosive than 2020. Coen’s ability to continue UK’s outstanding rushing attack while also adding a passing attack that, instead of ranking worst in the SEC, ranks seventh through four weeks is a huge improvement.

However, the unit has taken a step back the last two weeks with less points being put on the board and having back-to-back three turnover games. Also, several holding and procedural penalties have put the Cats behind the chains leading to more punts.

The Cats offense isn’t deserving of an A grade but surely hasn’t been worse than average overall.

Grade: B-

Defense

Kentucky’s defense has simply had two great weeks and two not-so-good one’s to kick off the season.

Week 1, UK held ULM to just three points after the Warhawks scored a touchdown on their opening drive and in Week 4, they held South Carolina to just 10 points and 216 yards of offense.

In between two great performances, however, were two struggles. Against Missouri, the Cats allowed 28 points on 398 of offense and four Connor Bazelak touchdown passes.

Against Chattanooga, UK allowed 339 yards of offense with Mocs running back Ailym Ford rushing for 128 yards on 21 carries, giving him an average of 6.1 yards per carry.

In total, UK’s defense ranks sixth against the pass, third against the run and second overall only behind the No. 2 ranked Georgia Bulldogs, which of course is impressive, but two issues have hurt the unit from taking the next step: Pressuring the quarterback and a lack of turnovers forced.

After recording six sacks in their Week 1 win over ULM, UK’s defense only had one sack Week 2, did not record one in Week 3, and had two in Week 4.

As for forcing turnovers, UK’s has only forced two all season, as Jacquez Jones had an interception vs. Missouri and Tyrell Ajian had a pick-six against Chattanooga.

With the defense only forcing two turnovers and the offense having 11 on the year, Kentucky has a disgraceful -9 turnover differential, which is among the worst in the nation.

All in all, it’s hard to nitpick too much at a defense ranked second-best in the SEC through four weeks, including two games against SEC opponents. But if they don’t start getting more pressure on the quarterback, it will be hard to win upcoming SEC battles with Florida, LSU, Mississippi State and Georgia.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

One aspect of Kentucky’s special teams unit has been solid so far this season, while the other three have all struggles.

The good has been Ruffolo and the field goal kicking. The senior in his second full season as Kentucky’s starter has knocked through 4/5 of his field-goal attempts, with his lone miss being a blocked 37-yard attempt against Missouri.

Other than that, he’s hit his four other attempts, including a 3/3 game against South Carolina that included a season-long 45-yard boot. He’s also been perfect on all 16 of his extra-point attempts, which of course hasn’t always been automatic for Ruffolo, who missed an extra point in overtime against Ole Miss last season that ended in a 42-41 heartbreaking home loss.

Outside of Ruffolo, UK has seen struggles in the punting, kick return and punt return game.

Freshman Australian important Wilson Berry started the first two games at punter for the Wildcats, but after averaging just 37 yards per punt on four attempts with no punts pinning opponents inside the 20-yard-line, UK made the switch to walk-on Colin Goodfellow the last two games, which has seen him punt four times for an average of 46.3 yards with a long punt of 59 yards. He also has not pinned the opponent inside the 20 yet.

It was always going to be impossible to match 2019 Ray Guy Award winner Max Duffy’s production after he finished his college career last season, but so far, the Cats haven’t gotten even close to what Duffy produced, which is a problem.

In the kick return game, UK has returned seven kicks for an average of just 17.3 yards, while in the punt return game, they’ve returned four punts for a painful average of 3.3 yards per return.

They have already had to rotate Wan’Dale Robinson out of punt return duties after he has had his troubles making the catches and turning the ball up the field, leaving Ali to be the new punt returner.

UK will need to find someone trustworthy going forward there and hope Zach Johnson can do more, as he’s proven he can before in the kick return game to help improve the team’s struggles this season in the field position battle.

With a lack of return production, poor punting and having a kicked block this season, it’s hard to give Kentucky a very high special teams grade, despite making 80% of their field goals and 100% of their extra-point attempts.

Grade: C