One of the great parts about sports is that a bad memory from one game or moment can quickly be replaced by a good one in just a matter of seconds, minutes, days, or weeks. In Kentucky football’s case, the team has a week to prepare to erase, or at least push to the side, some of the bad lingering feelings following the loss to Western Kentucky this past weekend. A team like Miami of Ohio (who comes in as a 17-point underdog, and recipients of an opening game thumping from Marshall) might not provide the strongest memory eraser for the Cats and the Kentucky fans, but the opponent does offer a chance for Kentucky to make big leaps and improvements in a number of concrete areas.
The coaching staff and the fans as well seemed to know that the growing pains would be plentiful, especially during the early part of the season. New coaches, new offensive and defensive schemes, new players, young returning players, etc. all factor into an equation that might take a lot of time to solve. With that said, one of the main hopes with a young team under a first year head coach would be that areas of improvement can be pinpointed from week to week, regardless of the result on the field. A win or a loss isn’t necessarily the best measuring stick of success, but rather smaller areas that eventually will lead to an overall better performance/team. Heading into Saturday’s game against Miami of Ohio, here are at least 6 of the areas of improvement that I think Kentucky fans should look for on the field:
1) The energy
Mark Stoops and a number of his players have mentioned during post-game interviews and press conferences this week that the energy and level of excitement/readiness wasn’t up to par against Western Kentucky. Stoops talked about wanting to see his team more fired up, perhaps feeling the need to calm them down if anything before a game. Kentucky looked timid on Saturday, and the vibe started well before the game. Things were made worse when WKU moved like a machine early in the game, marching down the field with ease. Hopefully with the game being at Commonwealth for the first time this season, the Wildcats can find a heightened level of energy, feeding off of the frenzy that promises to buzz around Lexington starting early Saturday morning. I hate the word swagger almost as much as I hate the bedazzled t-shirts that people for some reason buy that say the word, but if Kentucky happened to have a bit of a swagger as the favorites heading into Saturday’s game with Miami of Ohio– that might not be the worst thing.
2) Decreased number of penalties
Penalties for things such as pass interference, or holding, etc. are one thing. Penalties before the play even takes place, with movement up front or players in the wrong place, etc. are much less forgivable. Some of Kentucky’s players can get a pass on account of the fact that WKU was the first real game of the season, and nerves were likely a big factor. Simply put, Kentucky can’t kill itself with bad penalties. Against Miami of Ohio it might not come back to haunt them, but against teams with more talent down the line during the season, Kentucky can’t do anything to put itself in more of a hole than it might already be in.
3) Better production on 1st down plays
If Kentucky wants to have a chance to implement more of a rhythm offensively, allowing them to stick to the game plan and pace at which Neal Brown’s offense likes to operate, first down production has to be better. Whether it be the run game, cleaning up the penalties, more creative play-calling, Kentucky needs to consistently put themselves in shorter yardage situations by the time the second and third downs come around. Kentucky was constantly in poor field position with big chunks of yardage to gain. While the “Air Raid” has big play capability, much of it hinges on methodically picking up small chunks of yards on a consistent basis too– not taking losses or gaining only 1 or 2 yards.
4) The offense should make steps towards building an identity
After Saturday’s performance, I think many Kentucky fans were left with the same lingering question: “What exactly is the identity of our offense? What should it look like?” At times, the Air Raid looked more like a ground and pound style of offense. Only in the second half did things really start to open up, and that was in large part due to Western Kentucky’s shift in defensive schemes. The good news it that Kentucky should be in a position to dictate exactly what the play-calling looks like from start to finish on Saturday. Sometimes when a team is playing a team with more talent, or with a specific strength– they might have to adjust the offense around those things. Kentucky and Neal Brown should have the offense looking exactly the way they want it– whatever that may be.
By the end of the game, I hope that Kentucky fans will be more able to say, “That’s what Kentucky’s offense is going to look like this season.” And hopefully the offense will have a clear cut general (Max Smith or Jalen Whitlow).
5) Consistency in the areas that were positive in the Western Kentucky game
One of the most important things moving forward for Kentucky might just be consistency in the areas in which the Cats played well on Saturday. Raymond Sanders was a dangerous weapon in the run game, with Jojo Kemp showing flashes of his ability too. The run game can’t take steps backwards as Kentucky moves forward. The other areas of weakness can be built around it, but the positives need to remain positives with each game in order to build toward a solid finished product by the season’s end. Kentucky also had solid play from a host of newcomers such as Ryan Timmons, Javess Blue and Nate Willis. Timmons and Blue moved up on the depth chart and should see an even more significant role in the offense. With the greater work load, will need to come even more and continued production.
6) Stay Healthy
Perhaps nothing is more crucial this season for Kentucky than staying healthy. Kentucky has very little depth as it is, especially in the secondary and at the position of linebacker. Kentucky can’t afford any attrition at any position, but especially those. Kentucky will need as many healthy bodies heading into the physical grind of the SEC season as possible.