When the SEC only schedule was announced, we all knew it was going to be a major grind. Somewhere along the line some teams were going to take some tough losses and be put through a grind eventually landing in holes that could be difficult to climb. Unfortunately, Kentucky is that team after just two games.
UK is off to an 0-2 start despite entering both fourth quarters with a chance to win the game. In each instance, the experienced team came up short in situational football and the result was two tough losses. Now this team will have to get off the mat again as they’ll meet Mississippi State in another winnable matchup.
In this week’s Monday Huddle, we are turning the page to Mississippi State and getting ready for what feels like a must win matchup at The Kroge this Saturday night. This is a big, big spot for the program.
First Down: Stoops Speaks
Later today KSR will be present for the weekly press conference where Mark Stoops will field questions from the media. The team is obviously in a tough spot and it is Stoops’ unit (defense and secondary) that seemed to get exposed in the crushing home defeat to Ole Miss.
Expect to hear some explanation on just what went wrong with some of the coverage issues and how they’ll figure out the kicking situation moving forward. It’s a big, big week for the team and hearing how the head coach plans to get his team off the mat this week will hopefully give us some insight on where the team is mentally moving forward..
UK will be facing a Mississippi State team with a very strong defense and scoring points will be a much more difficult chore against the Bulldogs. The defense must make some strides fast because they have play well in order for UK to win the football game.
Second Down: Know the Foe
Well, they got the full Mike Leach experience in just two games down in Starkville. The Bulldogs were the talk of college football as they shredded Bo Pelini’s press man in Tiger Stadium and then they turned around and were upset as a 16.5 point home favorite by an Arkansas team that hadn’t won an SEC game in two-plus seasons.
Former Missouri head coach Barry Odom is now the defensive coordinator at Arkansas and he showed the recipe against Leach’s Air Raid. The Hogs dropped eight defenders into a zone most of night and were able to consistently get some pressure without sacrificing coverage. The result was forcing Stanford transfer K.J. Costello to dink-and-dunk his way down the field and the Bulldogs were unable to succeed in situational football. State scored just 14 points in six scoring opportunities and Costello has been very loose with the ball through eight quarters (5 interceptions, 12 pass breakups).
On the other side, State is using a 3-3 stack defense that is just not seen in the SEC and it is having a ton of success early. The Bulldogs have been superb against the run and they rank top-15 nationally in yards per play allowed. The secret of this defense is that you never know where the seventh box defender is coming from and it can confuse opposing offenses.
However, a good offensive line that can recognize different fronts can be this type of defense’s kryptonite. Plus, inside zone runs can usually be pretty effective on this group because it can be easy for your guards to climb to the second-level to block linebackers. If UK’s offensive line plays up to their standard the Wildcats will have a great chance at success.
Third Down: Red Zone and Turnovers
Through two games, both Kentucky and Mississippi State have faced some of the same issues. When the two meet on Saturday night, they’ll go head-to-head with Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense going against Mark Stoops’ big play defense.
The Wildcats are a good as anyone making opposing passing offenses dink-and-dunk their way down the field, but when you do that you have to be good in certain key areas. When scoring opportunities present themselves, you have to tighten the screws and get stops. They aren’t doing that with opponents scoring touchdowns on 80% of their red zone possessions and allowing 5.92 points whenever a scoring opportunity arrives (possession inside UK’s 40). In the turnover department, UK hasn’t produced a takeaway in eight quarters and an overtime possession.
The Bulldogs use a precision based passing attack that wants to spread the field horizontally and create adverse situations for defenses in space. They want to be efficient over explosive relying on yards after catch to create big plays. However, when you play like this you must convert in the red zone and take care of the football. State has scored touchdowns on just 37.5% of their red zone possessions and that ranks 13th in the SEC. The Bulldogs are putting up a woeful 3.38 points per scoring opportunity and were bailed out by big plays in the upset victory over LSU. Then you add in K.J. Costello’s ball security issues (five interceptions, 12 pass break-ups, 14.29% interceptable pass rate) and there are some issues. The Bulldogs have lost eight turnovers through eight quarters with a minus-4 margin that is tied for last in FBS with Kentucky on a per game basis.
Both team’s biggest inefficiencies will go head-to-head on Saturday. Whoever cleans up their mistakes will come out the winner under the lights at Kroger Field.
Fourth Down: Fix the Coverage
Perhaps Mark Stoops said it best after the game. “We did not play very good defense tonight”. After keeping Lane Kiffin’s up-tempo offense mostly in check in the first half, the Rebels exploded for 8.8 yards per play and four touchdowns in six possessions in the second half with one stop happening on fourth-and-goal. UK had no answers for the tempo and more times than not wide receivers were streaking wide open across the middle of the field. It could be time for some readjustments.
Both starting corners Brandin Echols and Kelvin Joseph have struggled to start the season, but they haven’t gotten enough help from the supporting cast. When you are a full out zone coverage team like Kentucky tries to be most of the time it is important to work together as one. The Wildcats are currently not doing that.
I think it is important to give credit where credit is due. Seth Williams was a freak in the first game while Matt Corral put together the best quarterback performance we’ve seen in Kroger Field since Lamar Jackson. However, Kentucky currently ranks last in the FBS in QB rating, 13th in the SEC in yards per attempt and is tied for last in the league in completion rate. Nothing is working and things must be fixed.
Maybe it is personnel, maybe it is scheme. Kentucky prefers to play deep coverage to not give up the big play, but they may just need to get more aggressive in their looks. This is not the week to get out of a zone, however, with Mississippi State wanting to throw it on nearly every down. Mike Leach won’t have his foot on the gas with tempo like both Lane Kiffin and Gus Malzahn so maybe that can help fix some of the issues.
After four quarters, it’s pretty clear that something needs to be changed.
KSR made the trip to Bowling Green this weekend and a defensive slugfest broke out between the Bowling Green Purples and the South Warren Spartans. No team put up a score until the fourth quarter when South Warren went 94 yards and they never relinquished the lead. UK target Caden Veltkamp led South Warren at quarterback and punched in a five-yard touchdown run late to put the game out of reach. South Warren did all of this without blue-chip safety and Ohio State commit Jantzen Dunn. Our Troy Howell was on the scene and recapped the night.
We will be on the road again this week and head out to the western portion of the state to visit another major UK target. Owensboro quarterback Gavin Wimsatt will lead his team in a battle with Owensboro Catholic in what should be a highly contested football game.
Kroger KSR Game of the Week this week will be
OWENSBORO vs OWENSBORO CATHOLIC
We will head to Daviess County for the show on Friday! pic.twitter.com/UpnX1gZlQ5
— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) October 4, 2020
Now it’s time for the rankings and we had a few shakeups in the top 15.
- Johnson Central
- Boyle County
- North Hardin
- South Warren
- Frederick Douglass
- Covington Catholic
- McCracken County
- Bowling Green
The Week Ahead at KSR
Expect a loaded week of content as we get you ready for Kentucky’s third SEC game this weekend. Make sure you are subscribed to all four of our podcasts: 11 Personnel, Free Money, The Depth Chart Podcast and The KSR Football Podcast. Each will be dropping at a different point some time this week.
Nick Roush will be here all week to provide practice reports, I’ll be dropping the Scouting Report for Mississippi State on Thursday and Freddie Maggard will be providing his keys to the game along with much, much more. Stay tuned as Mark Stoops attempts to climb UK out of the gutter. I think it’s important to remember that this team was in a similar spot back in 2016 where they had the worst defense in college football after three games. They were able to figure things out and eventually hosted Georgia in November with a chance to win the SEC East. The hope is they are able to do the same thing again.