Hello darkness, my old friend. Unfortunately, here we are again.
A week after the program seemingly took a giant leap forward with a dominant win over Tennessee at Neyland Stadium, the Kentucky Wildcats took two steps back with an embarrassing outing at Missouri, falling 20-10 to the Tigers by taking offensive ineptitude to new heights.
It's difficult to make sense of the awfulness. How did we get here? Let's start at the beginning.
1. Kentucky won the toss, elected to receive
Mark Stoops is and always has been a "defer to the second half" kind of guy. It's what you expect from a defensive-minded head coach. In the world of analytics you should defer at every opportunity, giving your team a chance to steal a possession near halftime. Deferring has been a regular thing since Kentucky's ten-win 2018 season, but for whatever reason that was not the case today. The Wildcats are 0-3 this season when receiving the opening kickoff.
2. Three plays, three passes, three and out
The best rushing offense in the SEC threw three passes on its opening drive. Only one was completed, a gain of six to Josh Ali on third and ten. By receiving, Kentucky's was supposed to set the tone offensively. It did exactly that, just in the worst way possible.
Why would Kentucky go away from the run game early and often? Entering today's game Missouri's pass defense was near the bottom of the SEC, giving up more than 307 yards per game. Similar to the scenario entering the Mississippi State game, it was awfully enticing for Eddie Gran to try to win with the pass. He could not resist the forbidden fruit.
Kentucky completed one pass on the following drive, then did not connect on another pass until the fourth quarter.
3. All About the Quarterback
Kentucky beat the dead horse until the carcass was bare.
Gran decided before the game that Terry Wilson was going to win the game for the Wildcats. Instead of letting the game come to Wilson by establishing the run through the running backs, the early incompletions got Wilson and the UK offense out of synch.
For example, on Kentucky's second possession the Wildcats ran the ball three times with A.J. Rose and Chris Rodriguez to move the chains. On the following play, Gran called a QB option. Wilson made the wrong read and was tackled for a loss. Just like that, Kentucky's offense was off-schedule.
You did not need to be an analytics guy to see that the running backs were Kentucky's only positive form of offense. The analytics, in this case success rate, did reinforce that opinion. Let Adam Luckett, an AnaLucketts guy, explain:
If that isn't clear enough, A.J. Rose had a 29-yard carry in the second quarter that helped set up a 50-yard field goal by Matt Ruffolo, tying a career-long he set last year against Arkansas. That one Rose run accounted for 44% of the 65 yards UK's offense gained in the first half.
4. Aggravating Third Down Defense
The turnover well was eventually going to run dry. You cannot expect a defense to average five forced turnovers a game for any extended stretch. However, you could count on the Cats to step up and get stops on third down after holding their previous two opponents to 6-for-29. Entering today's game Kentucky's third down defense ranked second in the SEC and nineteenth nationally by holding opponents to 31.4%.
With a freshman quarterback taking snaps, Missouri dinked and dunked underneath Kentucky's zone defense to convert 10-of-20 third down attempts and 4-of-5 fourth down attempts (56% overall). On one third and ten Mizzou successfully ran it six yards to set up a fourth and manageable, moving the sticks on the following play.
5. A 21-Play Drive with No Points
Kentucky's defense made a huge stop before half to force Missouri to take a field goal. Trailing 10-3 at intermission, as bad as the Wildcats played it was still a one-possession game. The sluggish first half could easily be forgotten with a stop and a score. That's not exactly what happened.
Missouri methodically marched down the field a few yards at a time. Twenty
plays later they reached the UK seven yard-line, one yard shy of a first down. Instead of taking a 10-point lead with a field goal, Eli Drinkwitz chose to go for it on fourth down. He put the ball in Connor Bazelak's hands, who rolled to his right, right into Yusuf Corker.
Bazelak was sacked. Missouri ate up 9:35 of clock and did not score a point. Just like that, the Wildcats had new life.
6. Avoiding Rodriguez
New life for the Wildcats was squashed in an instant. Backed up deep into their own territory, instead of feeding the powerful Chris Rodriguez to chew up some aggravating yards, Gran put the ball in Terry Wilson's hands. A QB-designed run went for two yards, then there was an incompletion and a scramble/coverage sack that ended the drive.
Kentucky's defense needed a reward for stalling a 21-play drive without any bloodshed. The Kentucky offense flipped them the bird in response with a three-and-out.
It wasn't the only time Chris Rodriguez was omitted from the action when they needed it most.
Naturally, the three-and-out left the UK defense ripe for the picking. Missouri scored a touchdown five plays later, yet the Wildcats weren't done. Rodriguez ripped off a 17-yard run on the opening play of ensuing drive. A penalty moved the chains on the next play and just like that, UK dialed up a successful shot to score its first touchdown of the night just as the fourth quarter began.
Finally, Kentucky had some momentum. The defense was got a much-needed a stop, treating the offense to a quick three-and-out, Missouri's first of the night.
Kentucky had the ball with 11:09 to play and a chance to tie it with a touchdown. Chris Rodriguez did not get one touch. Rose was stopped after a two yard-gain, followed by two straight Terry Wilson incompletions. In the games most crucial moment, Gran avoided his most reliable playmaker. The opportunity was lost and so was the game.
7. So. Many. Plays.
Some of this game's starts are inconceivable. Missouri ran 56 more plays than Kentucky. Running back Larry Rountree had more rushing attempts (37) than Kentucky had offensive plays (36). Missouri possessed the ball for 43:10, almost three entire quarters. How?!?!?
8. What the Hell was that Noise?
As bad as the game was, the SEC Network broadcast was worse. The crowd noise Missouri used must have been coming through a phonograph. The cameramen could not keep up with the action. There might have been a chance for reviews to go UK's way, but you could not see anything at Faurot Field. Everything about this game was awful.
9. Sure, let's try Joey Gatewood
Tonight we learned Kentucky's offensive problems are not all Terry Wilson's fault. Joey Gatewood received two series at quarterback before halftime and closed out the game taking snaps. Like Wilson, No. 2 had a couple decent plays, including an eight-yard rush that moved the sticks, but he failed to create the spark Stoops hoped Gatewood might provide coming off the bench.
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran has been the target of the BBN's criticism for years, yet the Wildcats have continued to have unprecedented success because of his ability to radically adapt the offense to his playmakers' strengths. Drew Barker was billed as the future of Kentucky's offense when he suffered a season-ending injury in the second game of the 2016 season. Gran rebuilt UK's offense around Stephen Johnson, who led the Cats to seven wins, including one over the Heisman Trophy winner in the season finale. Three years later multiple quarterback injuries forced Gran to play a wide receiver under center. Lynn Bowden proceeded to lead UK to win six of their last eight games, including a 37-30 win over Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl.
Once the dynamic, agile play-caller, Gran's stubbornness has held back Kentucky in 2020.
The offensive woes were apparent in week three against Mississippi State. It was clear then that the Wildcats needed to play the talented, albeit less experienced wide receivers, and make Chris Rodriguez the focal point of the offense. These necessary changes have only become clearer each week since.
The wide receivers can't get open. When they do, they either drop the pass or fumble the ball away. A.J. Rose can be explosive at times, as evident by that 29-yard first half gain, but he only picked up 14 yards in his other four carries. Meanwhile, C-Rod is steadily picking up more than five yards per carry while receiving nominal touches, only nine at Missouri.
Entering the season we were sold on the fact that Terry Wilson was going to take this team to new heights. It's apparent that will not be the case. Wilson is a fine quarterback that will make some big plays for this offense, but he does not have the pass-catchers to put the team on his back and carry the Wildcats to wins. The shoulders of the UK running backs can carry the heavy load. Tonight Rose and Rodriguez doubled the production of the quarterbacks with one less attempt
. It's clear and obvious that Kentucky needs to rely on its running backs to produce offense behind the Big Blue Wall. Why Eddie Gran stubbornly will not accept that fact makes absolutely no sense, just like everything else from Saturday's embarrassing loss to Missouri.