It was a beautiful fall Saturday in Lexington with Kentucky playing their final game at Kroger Field for the 2018 season. With a historic senior class suiting up for the final time on campus, it was important to send them off the right way after two tough losses to end the SEC slate. Despite a great game plan from Middle Tennessee's offensive staff, they were able to do just that on Saturday afternoon.
Behind a timely pass rush, two first quarter turnovers, and fast starts by the offense in both halves the Wildcats were able to collect a double-digit win on Saturday.
After a month of iffy offensive performances, UK was able to finish each of their scoring opportunities with points on and picked up a defense when they needed it most.
It was another team win for this group but that shouldn't surprise anyone. UK now has their first eight-win regular season since 1984 and are in the driver's seat for a Citrus Bowl berth.
On the day, Eddie Gran's offense collected 324 yards (203 rushing, 121 passing) on 53 plays. That's good for 6.1 yards per play. This was UK's highest yards per play output since the win over Murray State in Week 3.
The offense needed a bounce back performance and they delivered just that on Saturday.
All season we've discussed UK's inability to finish drives when they get into scoring territory. In the win, the story of the day was Kentucky's ability to finish drives. UK scored on all five of their scoring opportunities and this included two field goals from Miles Butler. The Wildcats were efficient on offense and they picked up some much needed confidence entering rivalry week.
To no one's surprise, Benny Snell led the way for the offensive attack with 116 yards on 26 carries and two touchdowns. The offense got off to a great start on their first possession with Snell recording 42 yards on six carries. This set the tone for the game and Kentucky's offense did pretty much what they wanted from that point forward.
Behind center, it wasn't the best game for sophomore Terry Wilson but the Oklahoma City native did exactly what the offense needed him to do. Wilson only threw 14 times but he completed over 70% of his throws and averaged nearly nine yards per attempt.
You cannot ask for much more from your quarterback. A great game plan by the offensive staff got Wilson some easy throws off play-action with UK getting the tight ends involved early and often.
There's been a lot of frustration shared by the fan base for not getting C.J. Conrad more involved in the offense but you can't make anymore complaints about that. The senior led the team with four receptions on Saturday for 51 yards and a touchdown.
The Ohio native now has 11 receptions in the last four games and is becoming a focal point in the passing game.
It wasn't just Benny Snell who produced in the running game against Middle Tennessee. A.J. Rose still continues to flash big signs of potential and his big run in the second quarter shows the type of burst and open field ability he has.
He'll be the unquestioned RB1 next season. The flashy runs are great, however, the redshirt sophomore has shown a power style where he's been able to move piles multiple times this season. Today he even threw a great block to spring Terry Wilson for a very long run. The young guy is growing with each playing opportunity and he should be in for a breakout season in 2019.
We talked about the offensive line's issues the last three games, but they handled their business on Saturday. UK had a significant advantage on the interior and they were able to get movement to create running room for UK's backs. On the outside, Darian Kinnard received the start at left tackle and played very well.
The staff was unable to keep the redshirt on him, but he should be more than ready to step into a starting role next season. The Wildcats avoided pre-snap penalties and played a very efficient game upfront.
Kentucky's offense was physical and efficient with a couple of big plays sprinkled in. That's their DNA and they got back to it in the victory.
Kentucky allowed 392 yards (99 rushing, 293 passing) on 71 plays. That's good for a 5.5 yards per play average. After only allowing more than 360 yards once in the first eight games, three straight opponents have collected more than 390 yards against this defense.
Middle Tennessee offensive coordinator Tony Franklin's utilization of funky formations and different tempo had this defense off balance the entire afternoon. The Blue Raiders consistently marched up and down the field against the Wildcats. Heavy unbalanced looks were able to create positive backside runs for running back Chaton Mobley and the Blue Raiders were able to consistently get the ball to their playmakers in space on the perimeter.
What they ran is hard to do if you not have great play from under center. That's exactly what they got on Saturday from redshirt senior Brent Stockstill. The head coach's son completed 90.9% of his 33 attempts with three touchdowns and a 8.9 yards per attempt average. Before yesterday, no opposing quarterback had a completion rate of over 70% against this pass defense.
He was excellent and even in his lone interception Kentucky needed a fortunate bounce.
However, the one thing Middle Tennessee couldn't do against Kentucky was protect their quarterback in obvious pass situations. When the Wildcats were able to pin their ears back and play straight up without having to worry about motions and weird formations, such as tackles lined up at wide receiver, they were able to consistently pressure Brent Stockstill.
In the fourth quarter is where Kentucky's pass rush did the majority of its damage. On the day, Kentucky recorded seven sacks with three at the end being in key spots.
After a horrible turnover on downs by the Kentucky offense, Middle Tennessee had the ball in UK territory only down one possession. Facing a fourth and one inside the Kentucky 35 they went to the same short yardage play they had scored on earlier in the game. This time Darius West creeped up in coverage from his free safety position to cut off the throwing lane. That coverage caused hesitation and allowed Josh Allen to break the program sack record.
After the stop, UK would put a good drive together that ended in a field goal to extend the lead to double-digits. Middle Tennessee would once again march the field and get into the red zone, but this time consecutive sacks by Josh Allen and Boogie Watson officially ended the game.
It was an ugly defensive performance but the Cats made the plays when they had to be made.
It was the secondary's worst game of the year as they struggled to defeat blocks and make tackles in space all afternoon. They must play better, but Kentucky faced a really good quarterback who was on his absolute A game on Saturday.
From an individual standpoint, Josh Allen will get all of the credit but one specific defender really stood out. Mike Edwards joined the 300 tackle club and was really the only player in the secondary who played well. His interception and forced fumble allowed UK to get off to a very fast start.
Let's start with the bad.
Punting continues to be an issue at times for this unit even when UK only needed Max Duffy twice against Middle Tennessee. His first punt of the day was nearly blocked causing a rushed rolling attempt that gave Middle Tennessee excellent field position. Despite great individual punts by the sophomore, this unit has had trouble to consistently make the right plays.
After two missed field goals last week, Kentucky went back to senior Miles Butler on his final day at Kroger Field. The Paducah native did not disappoint with two made field goals. Those makes allowed UK to finish solid drives with scores including the 32-yarder in the fourth quarter to essentially put the game on ice. This is just what Kentucky needed.
It was an ugly win on Saturday, but one UK desperately need to have. The Wildcats faced a solid football team who put together an excellent game plan. All season it was the defense that had to pick up the offense for wins so it was nice to see it the other way around on Saturday.
Offensively, there are a lot of good things to take away from Saturday. Kentucky got the ground game going and the offensive line was able to create consistent movement at the line of scrimmage. This allowed Terry Wilson to be efficient passing the football and the Wildcats were able to protect the rock. UK scored on all of its scoring opportunities.
Yes, at times this offense can be frustrating. This group runs into a lot of heavy boxes because of their inability to find a receiver who can create separation on vertical pass routes.
But late in the game they are going to always go back to their identity. They will give the ball to Benny Snell and let him carry them home. That worked on Saturday and it should be good enough to get this team to 9-3.
Defensively, it's obvious that this group has taken a step back for the third week in a row and it looks like a starting 11 that's clearly not at 100%. With that said, turnovers are going to be essential to make up some ground and for the third week in a row this defense forced at least two takeaways
. Josh Allen got to break the program sack record and Kentucky received some solid defensive line play. Get the secondary back on their game and this defense will have the chance to finish the season strong against a bad Louisville offense.
The main goals on Saturday were for UK to win the football game and gain some offensive confidence going into the Governor's Cup. Thanks to a timely pass rush, an offense that ran for 200 yards, and putting up points on each scoring opportunity Kentucky did just that on Saturday.
The Wildcats are now in position to finish the season 9-3 with the inside track at a Citrus Bowl berth. For the sixth year in a row under Mark Stoops, this program did not take a step backwards.
As ugly as it may be at times, the Kentucky football program continues to grow under its head coach. Beat your rival on Saturday then reset and get healthy during bowl prep. Once that happens you go all out for double-digit wins in your New Year's bowl game. This season still has a chance to be remarkable and end on a very high note.