Well, that wasn’t any fun.
A week after the tough loss to Georgia, UK was facing a schedule with three opponents they were clearly better than to close the season. If the Wildcats were able to win out, they were going to have double-digit victories and be in the top 10 heading to a New Year’s Six Bowl. It was a going to be a monumental achievement for this program.
That is out the window now.
On Saturday at Neyland Stadium, the Wildcats were outhustled, outschemed, and outwilled by an inferior Tennessee football team. The game played out like so many UK-UT games have in the past, but this year should’ve been different. The Wildcats were allowing explosive plays that they haven’t given up all season and the offense remained in a total funk. It was an all systems failure.
This result continues a brutal five-game stretch for the Wildcats. After scoring at least 24 points in each game to start the season, UK has only produced seven offensive touchdowns in the last 22 quarters. That is embarrassing, incompetent, and should not be tolerated.
Yesterday in Knoxville, the Wildcats collected just 262 total yards (77 rushing, 185 passing) on 73 plays. That’s good for 3.6 yards per play. Only the performance against against Texas A&M was worse for the Wildcats.
Once again, when Kentucky was able to put drives together they had a horrible time finishing them with scores. The Wildcats crossed midfield multiple times and only came away with seven points. On their first scoring possession of the day, a dropped snap and dropped pass forced a makeable field goal into a 51-yard attempt. Chance Poore missed and Kentucky went scoreless. This set the tone for the game.
Little mistakes continue to hamper the offense, but their inability to create explosive gives this group no room for error. The Wildcats are a run first team and every opponent they’ve face outside of Vanderbilt in this stretch has been totally able to shut down that ground attack. I think it’s fair to wonder if the guys upfront are being hampered by injuries or if UK’s style of play has just worn them down.
When you aren’t able to block at the point of attack that makes life very difficult for your quarterback. In only his fourth career road start, it was a very inconsistent day for Terry Wilson. The junior college transfer completed over 60% of his passes for the eighth time this season but the completions are not going anywhere. For the seventh time this year, Wilson’s yards per attempt average was under seven yards and that’s just not going to get the job done.
Wilson was constantly under pressure in the ballgame and was sacked five times. UK’s offensive line was incompetent all game long and they made life really difficult for the young quarterback. After running for at least 50 yards in four of the first seven games, the quarterback run has totally been eliminated by defenses in the last three. Taking away Wilson’s running ability eliminates a significant alternate weapon to Benny Snell.
Speaking of the junior tailback, it was a rough afternoon for UK’s star offensive player. It was clear that the gameplan was to get him rolling early, but Tennessee did a great job in keeping him contained. In the first quarter, the Vols stuffed Benny Snell on a third and short.
The junior from Ohio collected 81 yards on 20 carries. If you take out the Vanderbilt game, he hasn’t recorded over 100 yards since rumbling through Mississippi State. If you’re looking for the biggest reason this offense is struggling look no further. UK’s identity is to pound the rock with Benny Snell and teams have totally eliminated it. Kentucky does not have a counterpunch in its arsenal and it is severely holding back this football team.
At receiver, the same issues are showing up. We saw bad drops on Saturday and this is now becoming a trend for this year’s offense. Outside of Lynn Bowden (six catches, 57 yards) no one is able to consistently create separation. UK is desperately looking for answers. In the last two games we’ve seen Zy’aire Hughes and Ahmad Wagner both receiving snaps and vertical targets in the passing game. Dorian Baker was nowhere to be found yesterday and the coaching staff is still unable to create plays for C.J. Conrad on a consistent basis.
It’s easy for us to say that UK needs to pass more but the coaches and players on this end need to produce when their number is called.
With the offense struggling like it did, Kentucky would need another flawless performance by its defense. Matt House’s unit was able to come through on the road at both Texas A&M and Mizzou to give the Wildcats a chance to win it in the fourth quarter. They were unable to do the same at Tennessee.
The Vols put up 412 yards (215 rushing, 197 passing) on 60 plays for a 6.9 yards per play average. That yardage total was the highest output in an SEC game this season for Tennessee. The one thing UK couldn’t allow was explosive plays and UT got a ton of them on Saturday.
After being one of the best defenses in the country at limiting big plays, both Georgia and Tennessee have been able find them against Kentucky the last two weeks. In the air is where the Vols did most of their damage.
Jarrett Guarantano only threw the football 20 times but they were effective. The redshirt sophomore completed sixty percent of his attempts and averaged just under 10 yards per throw. The biggest one occurred right as the second quarter expired to put UT up an insurmountable three scores.
The Vols were able to consistently create separation vertically down the field. Things improved for the Wildcats when Darius West returned in the second half, but Tennessee’s wide receivers outplayed UK’s secondary. However, this wasn’t the most disappointing part of the performance.
Tennessee entered the game as the worst rushing offense in the SEC and their yards per carry averaged ranked 117th in the FBS. A week after being exposed by Georgia on the ground, the Wildcats weren’t able to iron out their issues in just one week.
The Vols ran for 215 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry. Tennessee was able to get UK’s front moving horizontally and the running backs were quick enough to burst through the line of scrimmage and consistently come away with productive gains. At times, UK was able to produce tackles for loss but they weren’t enough to prevent Tennessee from having one of their most productive rushing performances of the season.
The Wildcats did make some solid adjustments in the second half and were able to keep it close enough for their offense to have plenty of chances to mount a comeback. But for the second week in a row, UK gave up over 20 points and six yards per play. Neither of those happened in the first eight weeks of the season. After carrying the offense for most of the season, it could be that this group is starting to wear down.
If you’re looking for some positives, UK had some young guys really perform well. Chris Oats looks like he belongs and he’s going to be a star at linebacker for this defense. He deserves more playing time. Marquan McCall also contributed and it’s clear he can be a dominant force at nose. UK will be losing a lot of this year’s defense but there is definitely young talent waiting for their turn.
Saturday was another disappointing performance for Dean Hood’s unit.
Max Duffy has been excellent all season and he boomed a 50-plus yard punt out of the endzone when UK desperately needed it. However, when his punts are returnable, UK’s coverage team is getting shredded. Another big return this week gave Tennessee great starting field position and this resulted in a field goal. With the way UK plays, they cannot afford to give up short fields.
The kicking woes continue for the Wildcats as Chance Poore missed his first career kicks. The first one came from 51 yards and had the leg but was just wide. The next was from 30 yards and was blocked. On the kick it appeared that the ball came out extremely low and that cannot happen. If UK makes it, then it becomes a two score game in the fourth quarter.
For the season, the Wildcats are now just 5-for-11 on field goal attempts and there’s been quite a few occasions where Mark Stoops has decided not to kick because of UK’s place kicking issues. We’ve talked ad nauseam about UK’s inability to finish drives and kicking field goals has a lot to do with it. UK is reeling from the loss of Austin MacGinnis and not having a reliable kicker is just another thing hurting this offense.
Before we go into the obvious offensive issues that need to be pointed out, I think it’s only fair to point out each level’s ineffectiveness on Saturday. The defense allowed the worst rushing offense in the SEC to roll up over 200 yards and the secondary consistently got beat vertically down the field. The pass rush had a very difficult time getting home and it was blatantly obvious that this defense missed Darius West in the first half. In the kicking game, UK’s punt coverage still is giving up far too many big returns and the place kicking issues are wasting solid drives the offense puts together.
But at the end of the day, you cannot score just a touchdown and expect to keep it close against anyone. This was the third time this season that an SEC opponent has limited Kentucky’s offense to just one offensive touchdown. That is inexcusable and must be fixed.
This may be rock bottom.
The Wildcats need to get through the season but once this year is over, Mark Stoops is going to have to make a difficult decision. Under Eddie Gran’s watch, the offense has declined in production each season. The passing game has been nowhere to be found and without an all-time great place kicker this group doesn’t have someone to bail them out when things are going bad.
At Cincinnati, Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw utilized an offense that went with tempo and threw the ball around the yard. Balance was key but scoring was never an issue. UC put up over 30 points per game each season with Gran. At Kentucky, however, Mark Stoops has made it clear he wants an offense to limit possessions, be physical, and put his defense in good spots. They are doing that but you have to score points too.
This style of play may have wasted what could’ve been an all-time great season for UK and I think its fair to take a step back and consider adjusting the offensive philosophy.