Archrival Louisville lost to Clemson on Thursday night and moved to 0-3. Commonwealth Stadium was sold out. Questions of should we or shouldn’t we charge the field trended on local radio shows. The BBN’s mood and expectation summited. Then came Saturday night. Florida extended its winning streak to 29.
Let’s take a look at the film or the “why” of the game’s result. The following is a break-down of the breakdowns while highlighting the highlights segmented by offense, defense, and special teams:
— Kentucky’s first offensive drives to start both halves resulted in critical dropped passes. During UK’s game opening series, Dorian Baker had gotten behind UF All-American Vernon Heargraves III before dropping a touchdown pass in the end zone. Commonwealth Stadium was poised to euphorically erupt. The moment presented itself to no avail. The squandered TD chance was then followed up by another tipped/dropped pass that Heargraves intercepted and returned deep into Wildcat territory. Florida eventually scored a touchdown. That one play resulted in a potential 14-point scoreboard flip. Missed opportunity.
— During its initial second half drive, Patrick Towles hit Jeff Badet between the numbers on a hitch route. The football then hit the ground, incomplete. An all too familiar second and 10 play followed.
— Florida’s defense was multiple, disruptive, skilled, and the aggressor. With the return of safety Keanu Neal and Vernon Heargraves III, the Gator secondary lived up to its billing as one of the nation’s best. Earlier on a KSR post and on the podcast, we explained how the UF secondary had dealt with opening game suspensions and injuries, but would be 100% vs. Kentucky. Safety/nickel Brian Poole was presented all kinds of problems. Gator safeties played downhill with early run reads that led to on-line of scrimmage tackles. Florida was rolling coverages. This means, it gave a pre-snap look and changed into a different coverage once the football was snapped. In previous games, running backs were able to make unblocked defenders miss. Florida proved to be a sure tackling team and physical against the run. This also limited the success of UK draw plays. Safeties read, reacted, and attacked.
— Kentucky’s offensive line had a difficult matchup and was at times overwhelmed. True freshman George Asafo-Adjei was beaten while one-on-one against Gator defensive ends, McCalister in specific. A move that seemed to provide the most trouble for George was when defensive ends stood tall, then dipped down to avoid arm contact thus running by the pass block. This move led to two sacks. There is no practice simulation to prepare the youngster for the elite athletes on the UF defensive front. Teachable moment.
— Screen game was ineffective due to UK inside blocker’s inability to chip defenders before releasing downfield to block. Patrick Towles then had to ground the football to avoid a sack. UK did have one successful screen pass to Mikel Horton.
— Gators’ six sacks proved to be the most impactful statistic. The Florida linebackers were blitzing up the middle of the field. Gators also employed cornerback blitzes and other alternative packages. However, the majority of sacks came by UF’s front six dominating Kentucky’s offensive linemen in one-on-one situations. Without a running back to chip defensive ends, Jordan Swindle and George Asafo-Adjei were left on a precarious island against elite pass rushers. Inside blockers didn’t fare much better. Florida’s defensive line twisted and stunted, meaning the defensive linemen lined up at one point, then crossed to take a different route to the quarterback.
— One sack in particular was while UK was in two minute offense mode driving late in the game with a chance to win. On third down, Towles tried to escape the pocket but was sacked. The veteran quarterback should have thrown the football away, live to fight another down. Instead, fourth and 22 was unmanageable.
— Situationally, UK receivers created separation against the vaunted Gator secondary. However, several times the football was thrown high or behind the intended pass catcher. If on target, drops ensued. Mark Stoops described this dilemma as missing layups. Against elite defenses, windows of opportunity are limited. When the window is open, completions and explosion plays must be the result.
— Cats struggled on first down. Against Florida and upcoming opponent Missouri, starting behind the chains is a consistent precursor to habitual three-and-outs. Against Florida and Missouri defenses, no team is built to be in 2nd-and-9 or 3rd-and-8 situations.
— Cats had the football first-and-goal on the 2-yard line. It went backwards and settled for a field goal. Play calling has been questioned. But, any SEC team worth its salt should be able to announce its play call over the stadium intercom and still manage to gain two yards for six points. Opportunity.
— Running backs remain the most consistent position group. I saw only one missed blitz pick-up block on Saturday as the running backs continued to excel in yards after contact. Boom Williams has established himself as a possible top five SEC running back. JoJo Kemp and Mikel Horton complement Boom with fresh legs and a hard to defend change of pace.
— Patrick Towles had a difficult night. That may be putting it lightly. Offense is an 11-man operation. However, the blunt of the liability will always focus on the quarterback. Comes with the job. 8-24 for 126 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions warrants reproach. However, the receivers didn’t help with dropped passes. The offensive line rarely provided protection to give Pat time to go through progressions. But still, there were missed opportunities; three that were potential touchdowns.
First is the obvious Doran Baker drop. Second was end zone slant to Blake Bone that sailed too high. A defender that flashed in front of the route, but a veteran QB such as Towles should have been patient allowing the defensive back to pass by, then thrown a strike for six points. The third was to Garrett Johnson on a vertical route. Both Johnson and Towles could have been more active in completing the pass. A potential fourth was a dig route to Jeff Badet. Towles’ throw was high and behind target. Lots of green, fake grass awaited if the football would have been accurately delivered. Opportunity.
— Play calling has been a highly discussed. The post-game topic has to be addressed. Possibly, the defense’s success changed the game’s dynamic. The smart play was to be conservative to enhance field position in hopes of a possible defensive score. Secondly, on a night when the quarterback was experiencing very little success, the offensive line was being dominated, and receivers had the drops, I can understand the conservative approach. With virtually no offensive phase working, precaution is at times the best method of attack especially in a close game. There is no doubt that offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson will be scrutinized. He’s paid well for his offense to score points. Saturday’s adjustments from the UF game will be evident early. Utilizing talented tight ends Conrad and Long have been a BBN rally cry. My gut says the offense could see a personnel and schematic shake-ups come Saturday. The coaching staff from Mark Stoops down sees this team every day in practice. I trust their judgement, but also understand fan frustration. I’ve not hit the panic button. But improvement and results are mandatory. Final thought, after watching the game twice, UK faltered in opportunities that could have changed the outcome of the game. Kentucky’s margin for error is miniscule. It errored more than it succeeded.
— I’m not advocating benching Patrick Towles. However, I do feel that if that against Missouri the passing game has a Florida type repeat performance, there will need to be serious and season impacting decisions made. A serious argument is for Drew Barker to at least play a series to get his feet wet. That tactic has been a commonplace across the SEC. Pat could potentially rebound with a big game on Saturday. However with a varied and perplexing completion rate, a practical concern remains at the quarterback position: Lousiana-47%, South Carolina-72%, and Florida-33%. I’m convinced that Kentucky has offensive threats. Personnel is in place to average 35 points per game. One non-productive game doesn’t define a season or, in the case of Patrick Towles, a career. Its struggles are in its inability to make key plays in critical game junctures. A large portion of this is fixable. In the preseason, I said UK would go as far as the quarterback took it. I stand by that statement. Needless to say, this is the biggest week of Patrick Towles’s career at the University of Kentucky. There’s no way to dance around the fact that beating Missouri would be a critical step towards bowl eligibility. In a game of this magnitude, the Wildcats need its veteran quarterback to play like a seasoned signal caller.
— Farrington Huguennin turned in his second consecutive solid performance with seven tackles including a tackle for loss. His on-line of scrimmage run discipline is a product of player development. Farrington’s disruption and edge containment forced Gator running backs back toward awaiting linebackers.
— Regie Meant’s development was evident and an early force. Meant registered four early game tackles and a sack before an early exit due to shoulder injury. His status for Saturday has been upgraded and return is likely.
— DJ Eliot disguised coverages and presented multiple pre-snap looks. While Will Grier consistently escaped sack opportunities, Kentucky’s movement and scheme seemed to impact Gator run game. Florida’s running backs totaled 66 rushing yards. Florida’s weakness was an inexperienced offensive line and UK took advantage of that with Melvin Lewis, CJ Johnson, Regie Meant, and Huguennin’s consistency. CJ Johnson potentially played his best game as a Wildcat. At times, he was unblockable in passing situations and presented consistent penetration into the UF backfield. Result was six tackles and assists on a sack as well as tackle for loss. His return from suspension has boosted the three-technique defensive tackle position.
— JD Harmon came up with yet another momentum changing interception. The veteran has stepped up to the challenge. Fellow upperclassman Cody Quinn also performed well. From doubted to consistent. Competition works wonders.
— Linebackers Khalid Henderson and Josh Forrest enforced middle of the field pass defense, timely blitzed, and made on the line of scrimmage tackles. Florida totaled 245 total yards. Much of the defensive success can be credited to Khalid Henderson’s remarkable improvement while filling in for the injured Ryan Flannigan. Josh Forrest has remained the steady leader with weekly improvement. The pair had eight and nine tackles respectfully.
— Other than missed sack opportunities against quarterback Will Grier, UK efficiently tackled. This especially applied during open field scenarios.
— Nickel Blake McClain was active and close to a pick-six. His impact from that position boosts UK’s multiplicity. Marcus McWilson led the secondary with seven tackles. Much like the three-technique defensive tackle position, strong safety and especially McWilson has developed into a defensive positive.
— Overall, the defense played more than good enough to win the football game. It did make errors, but nothing blatant or game changing. It limited Gator explosion plays. Holding Florida to one sustained touchdown drive while surrendering a TD due to shorten field turnover has to be considered a success. Eliot’s bend but not break approach also held Florida to zero second half points. UK defense lacks star power, but is collectively efficient.
— Kicker Austin MacGinnis was the team’s leading scorer. Austin MacGinnis was the team’s only scorer. The All-SEC performer has recovered from his opening night miscues.
— CJ Johnson blocked a Florida field goal attempt.
— Landon Foster’s punts have put the coverage teams in difficult situations. More hang-time and distance required.
What does all this mean?
In a frustrating night, there were positives. Kentucky’s defense played lights out football and well enough to win. The unit’s continued improvement is potentially the season’s most significant development. Boom Williams has solidified himself as a game-changing running back and one of the SEC’s best. Austin MacGinnis’ consistency has returned. UK was a series away from ending the streak. There are no such things as moral victories but program growth was evident. However, the Cats haven’t played a complete game as of yet. Inconsistent halves and six quarters without a touchdown are central concerns.
The Missouri Tigers. Mizzou comes to Commonwealth Stadium undefeated, ranked, and sporting the SEC’s top defense. Kentucky has another chance, an opportunity to win a conference game and finish September at 3-1. All eyes will be on the Wildcat offense. Following its Florida performance, improvement is mandatory. Schedule timing isn’t cooperating with Mizzou’s defense being one of the nation’s best. Maty Mauk is still the Tiger quarterback. Its offense has struggled. But in the end, there’s a chance.