Kentucky has reached the breaking point of the 2020 season and to say they needed this bye week would be an understatement. UK arrives to the idle week with two wins by a combined 39 points while in three of the their four losses they found themselves in a one-possession game in the fourth quarter. After a valiant effort in the loss to Georgia, it’s back to the drawing board for the coaching staff as there appear to be more questions than answers for this team.
Like we do every week during the season for Kentucky’s opponents, this time it’s time to do some self-scouting. We’ll look at everything Kentucky has done well this season, what they’ve done poorly and what needs to improve in a hurry to end the year. UK will be a likely favorite in their final two home games and a heavy double-digit dog in their two remaining road games. If they can get some things corrected they can end the year on a good note, but if they don’t it could be a long offseason for many in the Bluegrass.
The Wildcats have a lot of work left to do in order to salvage this season and this bye week will serve as their last chance to correct some of the bad and could act as a springboard into 2021.
The numbers are not good for the Kentucky offense. Outside of the loss to Ole Miss, UK has yet to produce at least five yards per play in a game and right now they are one of the worst offenses in college football. The pass game has all but disappeared and the rushing attack becomes very inefficient when Chris Rodriguez Jr. is not toting the rock. There’s not a lot of good in this data.
UK ranks in the bottom of the SEC in way too many categories and it all starts with quarterback play. We’ll get to the receivers in a moment, but this offense needs to get better at the sport’s most important position. Both Joey Gatewood and Terry Wilson have combined for a 36.43% passing success rate and a 41.67% rushing success rate. That is woefully inefficient and explains a lot of the issues.
This position is not creating very many explosive plays (12.5% big play rate on runs, 11.63% big play rate on passes) while taking way too many negative plays with a very large sack rate and an ugly 22.22% stuff rate on runs. It has been ugly, ugly, ugly and it all starts there.
This week the offensive coaching staff has to figure out a way to improve the play they’re getting from the quarterback position. It feels like it would make the most sense to roll with Gatewood to finish the season due to his high ceiling and for the fact that you need to realize what exactly you have in the former top-100 recruit. If he’s not someone you can win with long-term visiting the transfer portal for another quarterback may be a decision you have to make.
The first thing that could help the quarterback is figuring out some help at wide receiver. There’s no hiding from the fact that the play on the perimeter has stunk this season and outside of Josh Ali it feels like this offense doesn’t really have any answers. The coaching staff remains bullish on redshirt sophomore Bryce Oliver who has been recovering from a hamstring injury while we should expect true freshmen Izayah Cummings and Mike Drennen II to get a lot more snaps moving forward. However, UK is what it is at this point and can only do so much. You would like to see the passing game include some more creativity, but really this group needs to lean into its strengths.
It certainly does feel like redshirt sophomore Chris Rodriguez Jr. has star potential and the performance against Georgia helped back up the belief and numerical support. His raw stat line of 75 carries, 413 yards, 5.51 yards per carry and 4 touchdowns don’t jump out at you, but the advanced numbers help us tell a different story.
My weekly Chris Rodriguez Jr. production tweet.
75 carries, 413 yards, 5.51 ypc, 4 TD
65.33% success rate, 13.33% big play rate, 2.67% stuff rate
He's one of the most efficient players in college football. Only has two negative carries on the season.
— Adam Luckett (@AdamLuckettKSR) November 2, 2020
Rodriguez is one of the most efficient offensive players in college football and while not producing a lot of chunk plays he nearly never goes backwards and can keep the offense ahead of the chains at a very high clip. This seems absolutely imperative for an offense that just cannot create explosives. UK needs to ride him heavily to close the season, but he can’t carry the rock on every play. He’ll need help from some other backs.
A.J. Rose entered this season with high expectations from the coaching staff, but the production just has not been there. The redshirt senior from Cleveland has been inefficient and is not creating big plays. Rose’s raw stat line has similar numbers to Rodriguez (48 carries, 242 yards, 5.04 yards per carry) but it has been very feast or famine. The veteran has just a 37.5% rush success rate, an 8.33% big play rate and a 14.58% stuff rate. You’re getting nearly twice as many negative plays compared to chunk runs and are constantly falling behind the chains on too many carries. It could be time to see what some of the younger guys can do.
UK entered the season planning on sporting a three-man platoon at tailback, but a rib injury to Kavosiey Smoke ended those hopes early. However, he is back now while true freshman JuTahn McClain has certainly looked the part. The duo has combined to collect a 50% success rate on 20 carries with four chunk runs. It’s time to give them reps to see what they can do.
The offensive line has performed to expectations. Darian Kinnard might be the best tackle in all of college football and he is well on his way to All-SEC honors. It’s been more of the same for Drake Jackson and he figures to be in a fierce battle with Alabama’s Landon Dickerson to determine who is the league’s top center. Luke Fortner and Landon Young have been good while newcomers Austin Dotson and Kenneth Horsey haven’t been weaknesses who have had a couple of shining moments. The sack numbers are bad, but a good chunk of those are on the quarterback. They are opening up running lanes and playing like one of the best offensive lines in all of college football. They have live up to the Big Blue Wall nickname.
Finishing drives is very important and when you cannot create explosive plays it is absolutely vital. When scoring opportunities present themselves you have to cash in. Kentucky has not done that. The Wildcats are putting up just 3.59 points per scoring chances (possession inside foe’s 40) and that is making their small margin of error even smaller. You add that it with just how hard it is for this offense to create scoring chances and that is a major problem.
Well, Brad White is pretty good at his job. For the second season in a row, the young defensive coordinator has found a way to field one of the best defenses in the SEC and once again he’s doing it likely without one player who will finish the season first-team All-SEC. The offense has sucked up a lot of the air, but this defense has been excellent.
The Wildcats are allowing a passing success rate of 47.45% and a running back rush success rate of 44.32%. More times than not, they have been able to get offenses behind the chains with some elite big play defense. Passes are going for chunk plays just 12.76% of the time while rushes of 10-plus yards are occurring less than 10% of the time. This is a defense that makes you earn it.
UK has a havoc rate of 11.79%, but this year’s pass rush has been one of the most least effective of the Stoops era. UK has consistently had one of the best pass rushes in the SEC year after year, but that doesn’t appear to be the case this season. The defense ranks 12th in the SEC in sack rate and has a quarterback pressure rate of just 9.31%. However, it hasn’t mattered because of the interceptions.
In the last four games, UK has picked off 11 passes and has returned three of them for touchdowns. Only twice under Stoops has UK recorded more than 11 picks and the 2014 squad holds the record with 15. UK could be well on their way to setting that mark in a shortened season.
Perhaps the biggest surprise has been new starter Jamin Davis at Mike. The redshirt junior who was mainly used as a reserve the last two seasons has stepped into the lineup for Chris Oats and is playing at an All-SEC level. The athletic and long inside linebacker is on pace to become the first UK defender since 2016 to record 100 tackles and has been a playmaker with two interceptions, one sack, a blocked kick and producing the team’s only forced fumble through six games. He has been big time in both run fits and in UK’s zone coverage drops.
Josh Paschal has proven to be the team’s best run stopper with 6.5 run stuffs (rushes stopped for at least no gain) despite playing hobbled since the win over Mississippi State and it’s hard not to take notice Quinton Bohanna’s huge impact in the middle. DeAndre Square has been quietly solid with 4.5 run stuffs and four QB pressures. UK’s needs more pass rush from J.J. Weaver and Jordan Wright on the edge, but they’ve been excellent in run support with six non-sack tackles for loss. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster, but LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph has made plays with three interceptions at some very big moments.
Where this defense has really shined is when scoring opportunities arrive. Not only does UK have one of the SEC’s best red zone defenses, but they are also thriving in the extended area. UK is giving up just 3.73 points in 30 scoring opportunities, but has been dynamite in the last four games. In that run, the Wildcats have allowed just 2.16 points per opportunity as they are getting stops when they matter the most. It was the main reason why the team was able to hang around against Georgia last week.
To no one’s surprise, Max Duffy has been excellent this season as he ranks top-10 nationally in net punting average and only Georgia’s Jake Camarda has been better in the SEC. At placekicker, Matt Ruffolo has rebounded from a rocky start with five straight field goal makes and going 7 of 8 when you date back to the final two games of 2019. In the return game, not much has happened.
UK has only returned four kicks all season and are barely averaging over 21 yards per pop. Many expected redshirt freshman running back Travis Tisdale to contribute here, but his only return of the season went for just 13 yards. On punts, Josh Ali has had some questionable fielding decisions, but his one good return did setup a should touchdown drive against Ole Miss.
SP+ currently has this special teams unit ranked No. 5 in all of college football as the loss of Dean Hood to Murray State hasn’t stung too much. Quality control assistant Louie Matsakis deserves a lot of the credit.
Room for Improvement
- UK leads the SEC in run rate as they are still a heavy, heavy run team. This will continue as the season moves on, but it must be paced by No. 24. Chris Rodriguez Jr. needs a boatload of carries to end the year and UK needs to use this monster efficiency weapon to help it stay ahead of the chains. Find a way to get more effective quarterback runs going and this offense should be able to consistently havd manageable down and distances, gobble up first downs and limit possessions so the team can get back to playing complementary football.
- Kentucky’s defense has played very well this season, but they are set to really be challenged after the bye. Both Alabama and Florida have top-five offenses that can easily create explosive plays while running the ball efficiently to keep it balanced. Forcing takeaways have to be a part of the equation and interceptions may not always be there. UK must be more active in creating fumbles in order to keep winning the turnover battle.
- We’ve seen UK really be dedicated to the short passing game this season and they had a fair amount of success with this against Auburn. However, the book is out and this offense is going to have to stretch the field vertically. I think the Wildcats will be at their best to limit the number of pass plays per game to close the year, but when they do call for them they have to make them count. With Joey Gatewood’s arm talent, UK needs to be headstrong about pushing the ball vertically in the last four games. Take more deep shots when you can because the short stuff just is not going to work until defenses have to play something other than press.
- The defense is really well-coached, experienced and talented. This group is well on their way to a top-25 finish as a unit. However, it can be easy to go in the tank if your offense just remains anemic. For this side of the ball, effort will be the main thing to watch moving forward. If Kentucky continues to play hard they will be just fine. If effort goes away while the offense struggles things could get ugly.
- Mark Stoops refused to give us any intel this week other than Terry Wilson is back at practice. However, for the time being, Joey Gatewood needs to remain QB1. The results haven’t been that different when the two have been out there and the program needs to find out what the high-profile transfer can give them. Using the off time to build around his skill set and find out if he can win you games. If he can’t, you may need to visit the transfer portal again. As always, this sport can be unpredictable and eventually UK will need Wilson even if Gatewood is the starter for the rest of the year.