Entering the 2023 season, everyone expected Kentucky to be 4-0 when Week 5 arrived. However, some likely thought that the home team and not the road team would be ranked in this highly anticipated matchup coming to Kroger Field.
Billy Napier will make the trip to Lexington for the first time since he coached wide receivers at Alabama in 2023. The second-year head coach at Florida has led his second team to three consecutive wins since the season-opening loss to Utah. The Gators handled Tennessee at home in Week 3 and now have some real momentum.
But so does Kentucky. It’s go time in the SEC East. Gators and the Cats on Saturday afternoon. KSR’s Monday Huddle is back to the set table for another football week in the Bluegrass. Let’s rock and roll.
First Down: This week is about the offense
Kentucky’s defense balled out in the 17-point road win against Vanderbilt. The Wildcats forced three turnovers that led directly to 21 points. AJ Swann completed only 16 of 40 passes, Vandy tailbacks rushed for only 3.8 yards per rush on 21 carries, the Commodores were 7 of 18 on third/fourth down, and finished the game with 4.4 yards per play. Vandy scored two late touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but we saw a dominant performance from Brad White‘s defense.
Once again, the Wildcats look like a potential top-15 defense. This unit will keep the team in games. The offense needs to win the games.
In the victory over Vanderbilt, we saw a good performance with Liam Coen‘s offense producing 31 points in 10 non-kneel possessions as the Wildcats rushed for 164 non-sack yards on 5.5 yards per rush, rolled up 6.1 yards per play, converted 5 of 11 third downs, and scored 17 points in three red zone trips. The box score looks promising.
However, this offense is going through multiple stretches where they look awful. The first-half performance we saw against EKU was matched from the end of the second quarter and for most of the third quarter against Vanderbilt outside of a short TD drive thanks to an interception and lateral by D’Eryk Jackson. The Wildcats went three-and-out, kneel-out, three-and-out, interception, and three-and-out before breaking out of a funk. But for those five possessions, Kentucky ran 12 plays and lost 13 total yards. That is losing football.
The Wildcats are going through stretches of inefficient play that are hovering around for way too long. These must be eliminated. Most notably, first down has been an issue. Kentucky is averaging only 2.9 yards per rush and getting behind the sticks quickly. That needs to change soon.
Kentucky’s defense should match up well with Florida’s offense and will create its fair share of stops. But moving forward, the upcoming games are all about Kentucky’s offense. Last season, the Wildcats lost multiple games simply due to the offense not being able to score 24 points in a game. That has to change. Florida will be the best defense that Kentucky has seen this season. Will the Cats’ explosiveness be enough to produce four-plus scoring drives or can this offense fix some of the efficiency issues? We’ll find out soon.
In many ways, this next stretch of games is all about the offense.
Second Down: Devin Leary vs. Graham Mertz
Kentucky was one of many schools that needed to find a starting quarterback when the first transfer portal window opened back in December. Quickly, two top targets emerged for Kentucky.
Kentucky first hosted NC State transfer Devin Leary for an official visit before the super senior decided to also check out Auburn. While Leary was on his way to the Plains, Kentucky hosted Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz. A few days later, Leary came off the board on Dec. 20 with a commitment to the Wildcats. Mertz followed two days later with a commitment to the Gators.
It appeared that the Wildcats chose Leary over Mertz. Now Kentucky will face the other transfer portal target head-to-head. A major storyline this week will be if the Wildcats picked the correct transfer quarterback. Only time will tell.
An argument can be made that Mertz is having the better year.
The Florida quarterback is completing 77.8 percent of his 27.0 passes per game on 8.8 yards per attempt with six total touchdowns and one interception. The Kentucky quarterback is completing 59.3 percent of his 30.8 passes per game on 8.6 yards per attempt with nine total touchdowns and five interceptions. Mertz’s (52.1%) passing success rate is higher that Leary’s (41.7%) and is ahead in pass breakups/interceptions at a much greater clip (4.6% to 9.8%). However, the schemes factor in here.
Billy Napier has Mertz in a QB manager role. The Big Ten transfer has only averaged 21.3 passes over the last three games and has the fourth-lowest averaged depth of target (6.4) in the Power Five, according to PFF. Leary has the sixth-highest average depth of target (11.4) in the Power Five. That helps explain some of the efficiency gaps. Leary ranks inside the top 25 in 30-plus yard completions (eight). No starting quarterback in the Power Five has fewer 30-plus yard completions than Mertz (four).
Would you rather have efficiency or explosiveness? We’ll find out which one is better on Saturday afternoon in a battle of transfer quarterbacks.
Third Down: Get ready for bully ball
Billy Napier is an offensive-minded coach with a clear identity. The former Louisiana head coach has brought a pistol outside zone offense to Gainesville that wants to play downhill. Florida is a run-heavy team that wants to protect the football and win games with time of possession, efficient run game, and explosive pass plays off play-action.
In short, Napier wants Florida to look something like Kirby Smart‘s Georgia or Nick Saban‘s old-school Alabama when things get rolling. However, you need very good players to play this brand of ball and win at an elite level. Those players appear to be on the way as Florida is building a top-five high school recruiting class in the 2024 cycle, but they are not on the roster yet.
Florida will come into Kroger Field and attempt to push Kentucky around. This strategy worked against Tennessee but backfired against Utah. Run game efficiency was the top reason why.
The Gators rank No. 42 nationally in rush attempts per game (37.75) but are down at No. 66 in yards per rush (4.36). Florida got their rushing attack rolling against McNeese (327 yards on 6.4 yards per rush), but outside of that the results have been lacking. Napier’s offense rushed for only 13 yards against Utah, averaged under 4.3 yards per rush against Tennessee, and under 3.8 yards per rush against Charlotte. That is not a good sign for a run-heavy offense.
Kentucky has been very stingy against the run to this point in the season. The Wildcats have not allowed 100 yards rushing in a game yet and have won the total rushing yards battle with ease in each outing. The first four foes found some tough sledding against the Cats, but Florida;s one-two combo of Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson Jr. will be a different challenge. The duo has rushed for 540 yards on 5.7 yards per rush this season. Kentucky will get a heavy dose of this twosome out of some bigger personnel grouping on Saturday.
Brad White’s unit will need to play some base defense, fit the run, and not get burned on short play-action throws from Graham Mertz. The Wildcats have had success slowing the Gators’ ground game down each of the last three seasons. That will need to happen again on Saturday.
In the loss to Utah, Florida quickly had to abandon the run after falling behind early. That lack of commitment to the run game likely won’t happen again. Kentucky’s defense must be ready for some downhill football.
The week ahead at KSR
Week 5 is here, and the first SEC home game is on the slate for Kentucky. Despite the noon kickoff, we should see a lively atmosphere at Kroger Field on Saturday afternoon. To help get us to Saturday, we will provide in-depth pregame content from now until kickoff.
KSR will have full coverage of Mark Stoops’ press conference on Monday before taking a look at a depth chart that could have some changes. Subscribe to the KSR YouTube Channel so you can see the first Rapid Reaction of the season this afternoon. From there, practice reports and daily podcasts will take over as Saturday quickly approaches.
Over at KSR+, we will have film notes up on the board, a full Week 4 recap on Wednesday, a lengthy scouting report on Florida on Thursday, and some against-the-spread picks on Friday.
Let’s play some SEC football.