After six close games, we have finally made it to the much-needed bye week. We enter this bye week 5-1 (with only one point separating us from 6-0) which has only been done five times in the last 40 years. Even still, we sit here dumbfounded on how we haven’t beaten some of these teams by more. All things considered, however, I think we should be pleased with 5-1 and two weeks to prepare for Mississippi State. There are a lot of ups and downs we can look back on and there is plenty to look forward to throughout the season.
Positives from the First Half
The Receivers are playing well
This season, the receiving corps looks great for the first time in seemingly forever. We have seen great production from the older guys such as Juice Johnson and Blake Bone, plus the younger guys are playing great too like Lynn Bowden, Tavin Richardson, and Kayaune Ross. Not to mention Charles Walker has had an outstanding year, as well. We knew he was great on special teams but who saw this coming? Then of course CJ Conrad has been solid out of the tight end, per usual. It’s safe to say we are all very pleased with their play even after the loss of Jeff Badet and Dorian Baker.
Of course, I had to mention Stephen Johnson. How could one not? The man is a winner, that’s proven. He makes the big plays when needed, and he might be the smartest decision maker I’ve ever seen under center for the Wildcats. This season Johnson has thrown for 1,223 yards, nine touchdowns, two interceptions, and has a passer rating of 147.5. We could not ask for much more out of him and as always, I’m proud to say that’s my quarterback.
What a difference three years makes. Three years ago, Kentucky didn’t have a special teams coach and was arguably the worst unit in the nation. This season Stoops decided to bring on Dean Hood, and to say his group has been special this season would be an understatement. We have arguably the best kicker in the nation in Austin MacGinnis who is money from any reasonable distance. Even if he kicks one from 56 and it falls a few yards short, it’s always on line. He also became the all-time leading scorer in Kentucky football history Saturday. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers need to give him a call after this season.
The Aussie Punter Matt Panton has been nothing short of amazing this year. With an average punt of 42.5 yards this season, he has really been a game changer. You can always count on him to reverse the field and rarely gives the opposing teams’ returner a chance to get a big gain. Finally, another player I would like to highlight on the special teams is Charles Moushey. He is seemingly on every special teams tackle. We really noticed him break out during the Florida game. This season Moushey has seven tackles just on special teams. That is insane through six games. The special teams have been a crucial unit for the Cats this season.
Before Saturday, Kentucky’s defense had played exceptionally well, even without their best player Jordan Jones. It seems like a Kentucky player gets banged up every defensive play, and even with that we are still playing well. Eli Brown has stepped up in the absence of Jones, Matt Elam has answered his critics, and Josh Allen has been a stud all year. So even if the Cats are a little banged up, it seems that they have the depth to fill in for their superior. Sure, there have been some blown coverages to the fault of inexperience, but that’s just a growing pain we have to deal with. You can’t expect them to be perfect all the time, but they have played close to it. The defense has won almost every game for us and with the hope that Jones could return in Starkville, you can only expect this unit to get better.
The Offensive Line
Going into the season we all thought Kentucky’s offensive line would be a highlight for the Cats, but in the absence of Cole Mosier and Jon Toth this group has really struggled. Granted, some of them are inexperienced, but going into the bye week this must be a key emphasis in practice. It seems like Stephen Johnson has no time, there have been an abundance of penalties, and they’re struggling to create holes for Benny. But, the silver lining is they seem to be playing better with Drake Jackson handling the snaps and the more experience he gets, the better the line gets. Expect this unit to improve after the bye week.
The Rushing Attack
Once again, entering the season we all thought Kentucky’s rushing attacking would carry the offense, but it’s been the opposite. This season the Cats are only averaging 3.6 yards a carry and that’s just not going to get the job done. I’m sure the Wildcat and the poor offensive line has contributed to this number, but still it just looks like Benny is struggling. With that said, Sihiem King has played great out of the backfield and this season has really been his coming out party. The other positive note to take away is the running game seemed to hit its stride Saturday against Missouri. Benny had his longest career run with a 71-yard carry and Kentucky had their most rushing yards this season against an FBS school with 188 yards.
Conservative Play Calling
Easily the biggest complaint this season has been the conservative play calling down the stretch, which has caused four of Kentucky’s games to be decided by one possession. Now, I trust Eddie Gran and I believe in what he is doing, so right now I will give him the benefit of the doubt. For the Florida game, we all knew the narrative of the daunting streak, so I think Gran didn’t want to be criticized for throwing the ball late, which is a rarity. Even though it hurt, I will give him a break on that one. But for Eastern Michigan I really don’t have an explanation. I don’t know if he didn’t want to expose the playbook or what, but that game was a struggle to watch in the fourth. On the positive side, Gran seemed to have listened to the complaints and he put the ball in Stephen Johnson’s hands a lot more this weekend. The play calling seemed less conservative, we are seeing less and less of the wildcat each week, and we went for it on 4th down Saturday. For once, the offense won us a game Saturday by airing it out, trusting Stephen Johnson, and putting up points at will. Saturday was a good take way game for the offense going into the bye week.
What to Expect Going Forward
Going forward we should expect a lot of things to get better for the Cats. Players who have missed time due to injury could return to the lineup which will be a huge boost. It will be tough facing great quarterbacks down the stretch such as Nick Fitzgerald, Kyle Shurmur, Jake Fromm/Jacob Eason, and the reigning Heisman winner, Lamar Jackson. I think the Cats will be up to the challenge, considering the way the schedule is laid out. They’ll have two weeks to prepare for Fitzgerald, they’ll play two shaky teams in Tennessee and Ole Miss before playing Shurmur. Georgia may be a struggle, but they have already conquered Lamar Jackson once. I like the defense to be big in the latter half of the season.
Also, except Eddie Gran to open up the playbook a little bit more and get less conservative in these next six games. If Saturday was any indication, we will see this offense be more prolific than we did in the first half of the season. I think Gran knows he will have good offensive play calling throughout the rest of the season to beat these teams. Expect the rushing attack to get better as well as we play teams with pretty bad rushing defenses, such as Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Louisville.
Kentucky really has a chance to do something special this season with six games to go. Mark Stoops has been in this position before, but this year feels different. I expect Kentucky to win at least three of the final six. If they win more I will not be shocked a bit. This team is special and I think we are getting ready to witness one of the best seasons Kentucky has ever had. If the Cats play to their potential, there really is not goal this team can’t reach.