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Monday Huddle: The Grind Continues

Sep 26, 2020; Auburn, Alabama, USA; Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops questions an official during the second quarter against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t pretty, but Kentucky climbed back into the win column on Saturday as the offense posted eight yards per play in an SEC game for the first time during the Mark Stoops era, but they needed an onside kick recovery despite Vanderbilt putting up just 5.09 yards per snap. That happens when you can’t get off the field on third or fourth down while the other team scores a touchdown in every scoring opportunity.

The defense put together their worst performance of the season while the offense looked the best it has all year against the worst SEC defense outside of Ole Miss. However, things are going to get much tougher moving forward. Kentucky is set to play against the two teams with the inside track to play in the SEC championship in the next two weeks and each has a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback. We’ve got two measuring stick opportunities approaching for the program.

First Down: New Staff Addition

Just days after they lost their offensive line coach, Kentucky’s Big Blue Wall put together a masterful performance. The Wildcats rushed for over 300 yards in an SEC game while not allowing a sack and very few QB pressures. It all led to a big offensive day and the Wildcats did it all without two starters at guard. After the game we found out that the program will be bringing in a seasoned vet to coach this unit for the rest of the year.

Jeff Jagodzinski has had a very well-traveled coaching career that has included nearly a decade in the NFL as both an assistant and offensive coordinator in addition to a very nice 20-8 mark at Boston College. He hasn’t been on the Power Five level since he left BC in addition to not being in the NFL in over a decade, but there is a track record there. We shouldn’t expect him to be the long-term answer, but it’s clear that this was a pretty good pull on short notice. Have to think Jagodzinski working for Bob Stoops in the XFL played a major role.

Later today we’ll hear Mark Stoops address this in addition to many other topics. The potential for schedule changes is floating around everywhere in the SEC and there is a very good chance it could effect Kentucky. We’ll hopefully get a injury update regarding the status of both Kenneth Horsey and Luke Fortner as neither played on Saturday in addition to where things stand on Matt Ruffolo and Max Duffy.

These things will all be addressed with much more heading into the end of November. The program is entering a big stretch and how we talk about them in the offseason will be high based off these last couple performances.

Second Down: Know the Foe

I think it would be fair to state that Alabama is the favorite to win the national title. The Crimson Tide currently sit at No. 2 in the most recent SP+ rankings and they are just barely behind Ohio State, but they have played twice as many games. The Tide lead the SEC in yards per play and scoring offense as former Kentucky commit Mac Jones is posting some monster numbers completing 78.5% of his passes, posting 12.4 yards per attempt and reaching the 400-yard threshold three times this season. He has turned into a potential first round draft pick.

Jones appears to be one of the favorites for the Heisman Trophy along with Justin Fields and Kyle Trask, but he has plenty of help. Najee Harris might be the frontrunner for the Doak Walker Award as he leads the SEC in rushing and has scored 14 touchdowns in six games in addition to 20 receptions. DeVonta Smith is very much in the hunt for the Biletnikoff Award as he’s emerged to be the top target for this offense. They lost the explosive Jaylen Waddle to injury, but John Metchie III has proven to be one of the most explosive receivers in college football with the sophomore putting up 21.54 yards per catch in 21 receptions. Add that with one of the best offensive lines and this group is unbelievably stacked.

Due to the offense becoming much more wide open, Alabama’s defenses have taken a step back in recent years and young defensive coordinator Pete Golding gets much of the blame for that. However, this is still one of the best defenses in college football. The Tide rank 12th in SP+’s defensive efficiency rankings and that trails only Georgia in the SEC. The Tide rank third in the SEC when it comes to scoring defense, still stop the run at a good clip and have forced 11 takeaways. This is not a great unit, but they are still good.

You add all this up with one of the most talented rosters in college football to go with the best coach of all-time and the expectation should be national championship or bust once again in Tuscaloosa. They are the best in the business and a potential No. 1 recruiting class in 2021 tells us Nick Saban is not going away any time soon.

Third Down: Create Extra Possessions

Let’s face it, this is going to be an extremely tall task. Outside of the offensive line, it appears to be a mismatch tilted towards Alabama in every positional battle and this is a team coming out of a bye week. The Tide are unbelievably explosive on offense and have an awesome efficiency weapon in tailback Najee Harris. They are going to march down the field on any defense they go up against. The key in this game will be to create extra possessions.

The first way you can do this is by creating turnovers. We’ve seen Kentucky have a lot of success with it, but it’s mainly been by creating interceptions. The Wildcats have been opportunistic when there is a chance to make a play on the ball and they have turned these plays into takeaways more often than not. However, creating fumbles has been an issue with this defense only producing one forced fumble in 28 quarters and an overtime possession. That needs to change.

The other way you could do it is by making something happen on special teams. From a fake punt or field goal to a surprise onside kick there are ways to change the game. We haven’t much of this from Kentucky this season, but Saturday would be a good time to pull out all the stops to give yourself a puncher’s chance at the upset in the second half.

Fourth Down: Offensive Success

The defense is going to get a lot of talk this week and Vanderbilt was their worst performance of the season, but that group deserves some benefit of the doubt. There was some flukiness to the 35 points the Commodores were able to score as UK just could not get off the field on third or fourth down while the coaching staff took their foot off the gas a little too soon. Add that in with Vandy uncharacteristically finishing drives for the first time all season and it turned an easy double-digit win into a close game. We can talk all we want about that, but this week is about the offense.

This group has just stunk for a good majority of the season, but we saw some nice signs from the unit in the third win of the year. The Wildcats were efficient and explosive on the ground while Terry Wilson consistently made plays with his arms and legs. The offensive staff designed things well in the run game and they leaned into their strengths while scoring 38 points in their first 45 snaps. It’s hard to do much better than that, but now it’s time to see growth.

Expect a whole lot of press man from a strong Alabama secondary similar to what UK saw against Georgia. The Tide are going to be all in on stopping the run, but Chris Rodriguez Jr. has proven that he can get production against anyone. UK’s passing game, and most notably receivers, must prove they can make some more plays. Do this and Kentucky could have a chance if they are able to finish drives with touchdowns.

After the bye, the performance against Vanderbilt was a really good start. Kentucky has a strong offensive line and one of the best running backs in the SEC that can be productive against anyone. Now they need their quarterback and wideouts to provide some playmaking. Do that and this team has a chance.

Prep Corner

There were no high school games this past week, but the playoffs officially start this week in Kentucky as the state prepares to crown six different schools state champions. Our own Troy Howell will keep you updated as we get ready for another run to a state title in 2020 that will be unlike any others we have seen in the past.

The Week Ahead at KSR

It’ll be another week jam-packed of football content with Kentucky heading to Bryant-Denny Stadium for the first time since 2016. Make sure you are subscribed to all four of our podcasts: 11 PersonnelFree MoneyThe 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 Bama on Thursday and Freddie Maggard will be providing his keys to the game along with much, much more. Stay tuned as Kentucky attempts to slay the dragon.

Article written by Adam Luckett

Twitter: @AdamLuckettKSR