Kentucky is all set to rejoin the action after the bye week as the Wildcats look to hit the reset button. UK will return to Kroger Field on Saturday afternoon where they will be hosting a winless Vanderbilt squad that is getting better and playing hard despite the tough results in 2020.
We are still not sure who will get that start at quarterback for Kentucky while the college football landscape is getting hit with a ton COVID-19 problems this month, but we are marching forward because there remains a lot left for the Wildcats to play for. They have a chance to end this season on a very high note and will look to get the ball rolling on Saturday with their sixth straight victory over the Commodores.
Nuts and Bolts
To say James Franklin did wonders at Vanderbilt would be very accurate. The current Penn State head coach posted a 24-15 record in three years on the West End with each season ending in a bowl trip while the Commodores finished ranked in both 2012 and 2013. He left as expected, but with a top-30 recruiting class in their pocket many thought the next coach would enter a very good situation.
Vandy would settle on Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason picking him over Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. However, the results have not been there as Mason is still looking for his first winning season at Vanderbilt and has only won 10 conference games since he took over. The Commodores have really struggled on the offensive side of the football and the loss of offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig to Utah after 2018 was a brutal blow to the program. You add that in with a defense that hasn’t fully been able to recover since linebacker Zach Cunningham left and you’ll get a lot of mixed results. Mason has a couple wins over Tennessee in his pocket, but other than that the positive moments have been barren.
Facing what many thought to be his final chance in 2020, Mason went out and got two proven coordinators. Todd Fitch spent the last four years working for Skip Holtz at Louisiana Tech and before that he served as the offensive coordinator at Boston College in 2015. He brings a load of experience and has been an important part of getting Vandy’s true freshman quarterback ready to play. Ted Roof has been a defensive coordinator or head coach in college football every year since 1999 with many stops along the way. The results haven’t always been great, but he brings a proven track record and an aggressive style to Vanderbilt. The wins haven’t showed up, but it’s very clear that this year’s squad is better coached than last year.
This will be the 93rd between the two programs who have played every season since 1953. UK owns a 46-42-4 series lead over Vanderbilt and has won 5 of 6 in the series. The Commodores were 16-0-1 in the first 17 games played from 1896-1945, but it has been all UK since then. The Wildcats are 40-19-1 in this matchup since 1960 and will look to extend their series lead on Saturday.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 17-point favorite with a total of 42. That’s a projected final score around 30-13. The Wildcats are 3-3 ATS this season while Vanderbilt is 2-3. The Commodores have been much better on the road and that’s where both of their covers have occurred. Kentucky is just 1-7 ATS in their last eight games as an SEC home favorite, but they got the cover in their last outing against Mississippi State. UK hasn’t been this big of an SEC home favorite since hosting Derek Mason’s first Vandy team in 2014. Derek Mason is 10-5 ATS as a double-digit road dog since 2015 with three consecutive covers.
Entering 2019, it appeared that the Commodores had a ton of answers. Riley Neal was stepping in as a grad transfer quarterback while the trio of Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney was as good as any skill talent trio returning in the SEC. Instead, the Commodores had the worst offense in the SEC and they didn’t have much answers returning in 2020.
The answers still aren’t good this year, but the Commodores are playing a lot of young players with seven freshmen or sophomores starting and a ton of young skill talent playing major roles. Vandy’s best players should have at least two more seasons on campus and that should be exciting for a group that has improved their yards per play total in each outing.
The Commodores entered this season with no quarterbacks who were on the roster last season and only junior college transfer Danny Clark (yes, that Danny Clark) had taken snaps at the FBS level. Vandy had a new offensive coordinator who had to choose from two true freshmen and two junior college transfers to run the offense. Play-caller Todd Fitch would go on to pick a young kid from just outside the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex.
Ken Seals (No. 8) was a three-star recruit who was the fourth highest ranked prospect in Vandy’s 2020 class and he has had some bright spots in his first five starts. The pocket passer is completing over 66% of his passes and is fresh off consecutive 300-yard performances. He throws with a nice touch and has the ability to drive the ball vertically. His 45.12% passing success rate is average at best, but he is getting better with each outing and has looked like a guy you can build around in the last two outings despite way too many turnovers.
On the outside, Vandy has three primary receivers and slot wideout Cam Johnson (No. 7) is the top target. The former top-300 recruit has over an 80% catch rate on 41 targets and has pulled in 24 receptions on 28 targets in the last two games. He is very, very efficient with a 58.54% success rate despite not providing much of a big play pop. He might be the most important player on the offense.
Elsewhere on the perimeter, outside wideouts Amir Abdur-Rahman (No. 2) and Chris Pierce (No. 19) are who this offense looks to for big plays, but they haven’t been able to provide them on a consistent basis. However, each has great size at 6-4 that can be difficult to deal with. Ben Bresnahan (No. 86) has been a very effective tight end this year and the redshirt sophomore has a strong 77.27% catch rate, but just a 45.45% success rate. It can be easy to forget about him when trying to match up with the other skill talent.
The star of the offense can be found in the backfield. After starter Ja’veon Marlow was suspended for violation of team rules following the first two games of the season, it has allowed redshirt freshman Keyon Henry-Brooks (No. 21) to step in and have a lot of success. The young player is averaging 23.5 touches per game and leads all SEC running backs in receptions. His 46.43% rush success rate is not great, but it’s much better than his counterparts and he has been a real weapon in the pass game. KHB has reeled in 20 of his 21 targets with a 57.14% success rate with a handful of big plays. He helps pace the Vanderbilt offense and when he is rolling they can move the football.
The offensive line play has not been great for the Commodores this season as they are really struggling to create running lanes even though the pass protection has been better than expected. Vandy has had to turn true freshman Bradley Ashmore (No. 70) at right tackle and that’s always a tough ask. They’ve played a part in the ball security issues as the Commodores have a jarring 14 turnovers in 20 quarters.
You add the turnover issues in with not finishing drives and that’s a very, very bad combination. This offense doesn’t create many scoring opportunities and when they do they really don’t finish drives. Vandy is putting up just 2.29 points per chance in 24 scoring opportunities and it is what cost them the game in Starkville. The offense could muster just 17 points in seven scoring opportunities and that resulted in a lot of points being left on the field. It is the very next thing this coaching staff must fix very soon if they want to avoid the dreaded winless SEC year.
Under Ted Roof, the Commodores are using an aggressive 3-4 scheme that is not afraid to take some chances. Vanderbilt isn’t very big in trenches with no starter reaching 290 pounds, but they have been able to create some havoc randomly. Overall, it’s been a long year as both the pass and the run has over a 50% success rate against this defense. Hard to do anything when the numbers are that big.
Against the run, opposing running backs are producing a 55.77% success rate with a 22.12% big play rate. That is getting shredded which can make it extremely hard to get stops. However, Vandy’s risk taking does eventually pay off with a 20.19% stuff rate. The run can be easily established, but every once in awhile they will be able to produce a negative play to get you behind the chains. Defensive end Dayo Odeyingbo (No. 10) is the best havoc creator on the defense, but he typical doesn’t do it against the run. However, he can get after the passer.
Vandy will move their best defensive player around on the line of scrimmage and the senior plays with a terrific motor that has resulted in 3.5 sacks and seven QB hurries. If you can get him blocked you should be in pretty good shape.
At inside linebacker, Dimitri Moore (No. 7) and Anfernee Orji (No. 26) can make some plays while redshirt senior Andre Mintze (No. 48) is this team’s best edge rusher and that’s coming from a converted defensive line player and former two-star prospect who is playing out of position. Nickel player Jaylen Mahoney (No. 23) is this defensive’s best player outside of Odeyingbo and he leads the team in tackles to go along with a couple of pass break-ups and non-sack tackles for loss.
This is a pass defense that has been pretty good against the big play, but their soft zone coverage drops don’t make many plays on the ball. Completions are there for offenses to gobble up if you can take advantage. Due to a multitude of issues, Vandy has played a lot of bodies in the secondary and they are still trying to figure out who their best players are on the outside.
The defense has gotten some pretty good fumble luck with five recoveries and that’s big because they aren’t forcing turnovers elsewhere. This defense has only reeled in one interception in five games and isn’t getting a consistent pass rush. The Commodores are allowing 4.59 points per scoring opportunity, but that number was inflated due to Ole Miss getting 54 points a couple weeks ago. They have been able to get some stops when they matter most.
Special Teams Breakdown
Yeah, placekicking has been a problem for the Commodores this season. Pierson Cooke (No. 37) has missed two chip shot field goals from less than 30 yards while being just 1 of 3 from 40-plus. This helps explain some of the issues with finishing drives and now the squad seems to be platooning at kicker with Wes Farley (No. 47) taking over the short kicks and PATs. Projected starter Ore Milstein’s opt out has really been a blow. At punter, there have also been issues as Vanderbilt ranks dead last in the SEC and 107th nationally when it comes to net average. The Commodores are putting up just 40.32 yards per attempt and gaining just 34.16 yards on average.
In the return department, kickoff returns have been pedestrian while they run out Cam Johnson on punt returns and he can be dangerous with the ball in his hands. Opponents are putting up 14.89 yards per return on punts showing just how bad the kicking game has been for Vandy. Josh Ali could have a chance to make an impact back there on Saturday.
The third phase is really holding this football team back.
Keys to Victory
- Earlier this week, talk about one specific area UK’s defense could improve on was helping the team win the field position battle. When you dig a little deeper, UK dominated both Mississippi State and Tennessee in this matchup while they have lost this battle in every other game. This should be an emphasis for the team moving forward and they’ll have a chance to get up against a bad field position team in Vanderbilt. The Commodores have the worst punting situation in the SEC and opportunities should be there to flip the field. It would help everyone if UK’s sputtering offense got to take advantage of some short fields.
- No matter who is at quarterback, the game plan should remain the same and it is to ride No. 24. Chris Rodriguez Jr. has been this offenses’s most proven piece and he needs to pace them moving forward. The goal for his should be around 25 carries and to act as the drive starter nearly every possession. Let him loosen up the defense and then you can take your shots in the passing game against a bad secondary once their eyes start peeking in the backfield. Look for play-action to play a role moving forward after the power back gets established.
- Ken Seals has started to look like a legit SEC quarterback in the last two games, but he has a tendency to throw the ball into traffic. Interceptions costed Vandy a win at Mississippi State and takeaway chances should be there for UK’s defense. We’ve seen Brad White’s group be ballhawks this year with every position group recording an interception. They’ll have a chance for a couple more on Saturday.
- Last year, UK’s running backs rushed for 291 yards on 34 carries while averaging 8.56 yards per attempt. They all produced chunk plays on the ground and made it very easy game for Lynn Bowden Jr. to get through. They need more of the same on Saturday. Kavosiey Smoke should be fully back in the rotation and expect him to get some looks. UK needs a complement to Rodriguez that will provide chunk plays on the ground. This hasn’t happened consistently all season and is a concern.
- Redshirt freshman tailback Keyon Henry-Brooks appears to be the real deal and Vandy is going to go to him often. Cam Johnson is this offense’s only blue-chip recruit and he will be targeted heavily. UK must be able to tackle both in space. If these two are able to break tackles it allows Vandy to move the chains and get drives rolling. Limit yards after contact to the duo and it could be a long day for the Commodores on offense.