There’s a broad, overarching complaint Kentucky football fans have for the offense: stop being so conservative. While valid at times, the generalization lacks context. In the heat of the moment, emotions cause fans to curse, but in the grand scheme of things you should not be so quick to chastise Eddie Gran.
Timely Mistakes Force Change
Simply put, it’s hard to be aggressive when you shoot yourself in the foot. Early in the season, this mistake often came in the form of a bad snap. On Saturday it came in the form of a holding penalty at the end of the first half.
With less than two minutes remaining in the half, UK went to the air for a 20-yard gain to Lynn Bowden. A holding penalty pushed UK inside their own 20 for a second-and-19. They could have continued to play aggressive in the air, but at great risk. A sack would give Mizzou better field position and an incompletion would give them more time.
Behind the chains, Gran tried to take away as much time as possible. Mizzou had the ball in their own territory with just 40 seconds to score. The defense should be able to get UK to the half with a 20-7 lead. Instead, they gave up a 58-yard touchdown pass. That’s not on Gran for being “too conservative;” that’s on the defense for getting beat.
The moral of the story: it’s hard to be aggressive when you’re behind the chains. When it’s second and short, the entire playbook is open to play aggressively. It’s difficult to open up the playbook after a mistake, or you’ll run the risk of throwing more gas onto the fire.
It takes time to correct mistakes in all walks of life.
To use a personal example, when I began writing I struggled with grammar, spelling and typographical mistakes. Matt told me to fix it. I proofread each post more vigorously. It slowly got better, but like any human I still make mistakes.
Eddie Gran started the season by employing the style of offense that brought the Cats seven wins last year. It took a game or two to realize that formula did not work for the 2017 team.
The Wildcat formation has been extensively dialed back. It was used less than a handful of times against Missouri, albeit creatively. If Benny Snell’s pass had three more yards, C.J. Conrad is walking into the end zone with a touchdown. That’s a pretty aggressive play call by any standard.
Critics said, “The ball needs to be in Stephen Johnson’s hands more.” That’s happened. Johnson threw a career-high 36 passes against Missouri. In each week of the 2017 season, Johnson has thrown more passes than the previous week.
Change happens slower than most would like, but rest assured that change is happening on the Kentucky offense.
If you want to see aggressive playcalling, just look at Special Teams. It’s not as sexy as the other two phases of the game, nor does it receive the attention it deserves, but aggressive special teams calls have won the last two games for the Cats.
Dean Hood wanted to go for the block on a punt against EMU. Mark Stoops was initially hesitant, but went with his gut and pulled the trigger. The blocked punt led to a Kentucky score that put the game out of reach.
Against Missouri, Stoops went with his gut again on fourth down. With the game tied, the Cats called a fake punt to Kash Daniel that got a first down and led to a field goal that gave Kentucky a three-point lead.
Kash Daniel with the sweet fake punt run for the first down. Love it.
— Jamie McCracken (@jamieamccracken) October 8, 2017
On the following drive, Missouri had an opportunity to tie the game with a 45-yard field goal. Earlier in the day Lonnie Johnson ran into the kicker and negated a missed field goal, yet he received clearance to go for the block again. This time it worked. Playing aggressive paid off and that’s exactly what the Wildcats did.
After laying out my case against the “too conservative” criticism, there are still specific complaints that make sense. They make sense because they’re specific, not sweeping generalizations.
Lynn Bowden had his best game as a Wildcat because he had opportunities to make plays. He needs more of them and an easy way to do it is with jet sweeps. To my recollection, UK has ran that play, but only once or twice and neither were to Bowden.
That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but this makes even less sense. After a turnover, the Kentucky offense doesn’t ride the momentum created by the defense. Instead of taking a shot to the end zone following a strip sack against Mizzou, Benny Snell ran it up the middle for no gain. The drive eventually scored on a fade to Blake Bone, but why not try that on the first play?
As long as Kentucky has a football team, there will be criticism. Some specifics warrant the criticism, but to generalize the 5-1 Wildcats as “too conservative” is misplaced judgment.