Following the first road dub of the season, Kentucky returns to the friendly confines of Kroger Field for their final two games of the year and first up is their yearly FCS opponent. UT Martin is set to make the four-plus hour drive from west Tennessee to Lexington for the second time in six years. UK has had some letdown performances in this spot in the past and they’ll be looking to avoid that this weekend.
Nuts and Bolts
Jason Simpson is in his 14th season as the head coach at UTM and the former Mississippi State football player and Southern Miss baseball player has been involved with FCS football since 1997. After a three-year stint as the offensive coordinator at Chattanooga, Simpson became a head coach at the age of 35. After winning the Ohio Valley Conference and making the playoffs in his first season, the Skyhawks have yet to make the postseason since and have only won at least eight games in one season.
This year it appears that the programs is firmly on the FCS playoff bubble but are outside looking in with a 7-4 record and a 6-2 mark in Ohio Valley Conference play. Per Bill Connelly’s numbers, the Skyhawks are a top-35 program this season.
WEEK 13 (VERY BETA) FCS SP+ RANKINGS
* NDSU keeps moving up … and so does JMU
* SP+ and D2 pollsters agree. SP+ and FCS voters do not.
* Villanova, Towson, and APSU: tourney darkhorses
* Top 4 Os: SDSU, NDSU, Davidson, Montana
* Top 4 Ds: JMU, Dartmouth, Villanova, UNH pic.twitter.com/eCzxwBJf1H
— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) November 19, 2019
Before the head coach’s arrival, UTM was in Division II from 1973-1991 before moving to the FCS ranks. The Skyhawks have won just one OVC title, with one FCS playoff appearance and they were each under their current head coach. Simpson is the program’s all-time wins leader.
This will be just the second meeting between the two schools with Kentucky owning a 1-0 lead. The Wildcats and Skyhawks previously met in the 2014 season opener when UK rolled to the third victory of the Mark Stoops era.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 29.5 point favorite with a total of 43.5. That’s a projected final score around 37-7. The Wildcats are 0-4 against the spread in their last four games against FCS competition with the last cover occurring against UT Martin in 2014. The Wildcats are in the midst of their best ATS run under Mark Stoops sitting at 6-3-1. UTM has just one win over an FBS school and has never beaten a Power Five program.
UT Martin is posting 27.3 points per game on a 5.6 yards per play average. Both of these would not rank in top half of the FBS. The Skyhawks run an offense that strictly operates out of the pistol formation similar to Kentucky. Jason Simpson seems to have found the future of the program in redshirt freshman quarterback John Bachus III.
The Pulaski, Tennessee native played in three games last season while preserving his redshirt and is becoming a cornerstone of the offense in his first season starting. The 6-foot-2 pocket passer is putting up 7.92 yards per attempt with 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions on a completion rate just under 6o percent. Improve that number and the future is bright for the UTM offense. He is a candidate for the Jerry Rice Award and that is given to the best freshman in FCS. He is throwing the ball to three very good pass catchers.
Terry Williams is a junior college transfer who had 67 grabs and 736 yards last season as a junior and has nearly replicated those numbers this season with a brand new quarterback. The senior is the possession option with 50 grabs, which leads the team, while only putting up just over 1o yards per reception. Colton Dowell has provided the big play pop from his tight end spot and the hybrid athlete (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) is averaging over 20 yards per catch in 35 grabs as a redshirt sophomore. Jaylon Moore leads the team with big plays and has five touchdowns on just 15 receptions. There are plenty of playmakers on offense.
Similar to what Kentucky has seen against Arkansas and Vanderbilt, the Skyhawks utilize a lot of outside zone runs and that is a concept that the defense has struggled to slow down this season. Peyton Logan has been really good for UTM putting up 7.2 yards per carry on just 109 rushes. However, both of his primary backups are averaging less than four yards per attempt and this is very much a rotational backfield.
This is an offense that is really bad on third down (39 percent conversion rate) and in the red zone (69 percent scoring rate, 50 percent touchdown rate). This is a young group that relies on big plays to put points on the board. If you are able to limit the chunk yardage, UTM struggles and that was evident in three of their losses where they scored 14 points or less.
The Skyhawks implement a 3-3-5 scheme under defensive coordinator Jordon Hankins who has been with the program for a decade. This unit has played a big reason in UTM securing a winning season with the group allowing 22.6 points per outing and 5.3 yards per play. Those are very solid numbers and they lean heavily on creating havoc.
The Skyhawks have collected 75 tackles for loss and this would rank in the top-20 in FBS. Most of this production comes in the run game, but UTM has 28 sacks on the season and has recorded 12 interceptions to go with 55 pass break-ups. This is a very disruptive defense who will take a lot of risks.
That zero blitz is something the Skyhawks won’t be afraid to use and it will be something UK hasn’t seen frequently since the win over Missouri. It could open some big plays on the quarterback counters.
The top two players to know are found at linebacker. T.J. Jefferson (No. 44) and Cecil Cherry (No. 35) have combined for 166 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, 10 pass break-ups, 19 QB hurries, and 2 forced fumbles. Jefferson is a stocky redshirt senior (5-foot-8, 225 pounds) who plays nearly every snap. Cecil Cherry is a grad transfer from Grambling State who brought home FCS National Defensive Player of the Week honors following UTM’s home win over No. 18 Jacksonville State.
On the line of scrimmage, Austin Pickett (No. 47) is the guy to know. The senior from Florida was a preseason All-OVC pick and he’s played like it this season. Pickett has 36 tackles and leads the team with 4.5 sacks from his nose tackle position. It will be fun to see him and Drake Jackson go at it. In the secondary, JaQuez Akins is second on the squad with 89 tackles. This is a defense that gets quality production from all three levels.
The Skyhawks have not been very good on third downs allowing over a 43 percent conversion rate and that is likely their biggest weakness. Their pass defense has been more susceptible allowing seven yards per attempt while they’re only giving up 3.6 yards per rush. However, in Week 2, Florida rushed for 231 yards and averaged over six yards per attempt.
Special Teams Breakdown
In the kicking game, Ryan Courtright has been excellent for UTM hitting 10 of his 13 attempts and going 4 of 5 from 40-plus with a long of 50 yards. However, Zane Cox doesn’t have a big leg at punter and is barely putting up over 36 yards per punt. Advantage to UTM in the kicking game, but a large edge goes to UK in the punting department.
On kickoffs, Courtright has a touchback rate of just 35.7 percent so return opportunities will be there for Kentucky. Terry Williams has been an outstanding punt returner for UTM recording just under 17 yards per attempt with two touchdowns. Max Duffy must keep the ball out of his hands.
Keys To Victory
- UT Martin has dominated first quarters this season by outscoring their opponents by 42 points in the first 15 minutes. Kentucky is fresh off another bad start against Vanderbilt and has struggled getting out the gate. To pull the starters early and to get everyone the work that they need, Kentucky must avoid the dreaded slow start. If they don’t, they could be in for a long game mainly due to the style of play Mark Stoops prefers to establish.
- The best thing that the Skyhawks do on defense is stop the run while Kentucky enters the contest as one of the best rushing offenses in college football. It will be strength vs. strength on Saturday afternoon in Kroger Field and the Wildcats need to win the battle. Lean on the experienced offensive line and take advantage of the defense’s aggressiveness to create some big plays.
- UTM lives off of explosive plays on offense while UK ranks in the top-30 in big play prevention. To have a chance at a victory, the Skyhawks must find a way to get a bunch of big plays and UK will need to make sure that it doesn’t happen. It would nice to see the defense force some takeaways and find a way to get more than two tackles for loss. That’s something they’ve done only once in the last four games.
One look at the forecast and it could be Kentucky’s third rain game of the season. The current weather folks are calling for a kickoff temperature in the high 40s with it dropping into the low 40s by the time the fourth quarter rolls around. There will be over a 50 percent chance of rain when the game begins, but that should be gone by halftime.
However, the biggest effect of the weather could be the gusts. We are looking at winds between 10 to 15 mph and that could play a big role in the passing game and in the kicking department. Something to monitor when you evaluate the play-calling or wonder why certain field goals may not be an option.