We’ve previewed Kentucky’s upcoming opponent this season by outlining what the Cats have to do in order to win. Keeping with that theme, I thought we’d cover what UK has to do in order for its bye week to be considered a success.
Kentucky is 6-1. The Cats are ranked No. 15 in the nation. The 2021 season has been an overwhelming success going into the bye week. The schedule up to this point has been lesser than anticipated. The back half of the slate appears to be somewhat more difficult than expected. Up first is a trip to Mississippi State. Starkville presents a unique home field advantage and is a haven for cow bells. Let’s take a look at what UK must do in order to succeed in its off week.
Kentucky is averaging 29 points per game. Mark Stoops was seeking balance when he hired Liam Coen away from the Los Angeles Rams. Coen has produced. UK is throwing for 197 yards per game and running for 191. Quarterback Will Levis has made tremendous strides in the Cats’ last two outings. The signal caller stood tall against the nation’s top defense at Georgia by completing 32 passes for 192 yards and two scores. Levis’ 67% completion percentage through seven games is a positive. He’s thrown for 1,326 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. Extending crucial plays on the ground has also been a staple after rushing for 175 yards and three scores. Mark Stoops has a quarterback to build upon going forward.
Wan’Dale Robinson has delivered. His 49 receptions for 566 yards and 5 touchdowns pace the team and ranks in the top 5 of the SEC. Chris Rodriguez Jr. is leading the conference after averaging 111 yards per contest to go along with 5 touchdowns. Vince Marrow’s tight ends have combined for 24 receptions and have been a bright spot in the passing game while maintaining its status as elite run blockers.
The Big Blue Wall is yet again listed on the Joe Moore midseason honor roll, which honors the best offensive lines in college football. It also features a couple of mid-year All Americans in tackle Darian Kinnard and guard Eli Cox. Luke Fortner’s move to center has proven to be a beneficial personnel adjustment.
Let’s take a look at what UK must do in order to win the bye week.
Get Josh Ali Healthy
Despite missing two games, Josh Ali still ranks second on the team with 17 receptions. The senior provides a complementary option to Wan’Dale Robinson. Georgia exposed UK’s deficiency at the receiver by limiting Robinson to 39 receiving yards off 12 catches. Simply stated, with opposing defenses focusing on Robinson, Liam Coen desperately needs Ali in the lineup.
Return to the Rush
Georgia shut down Kentucky’s run game. It limited the Cats to 51 yards and a season-low 1.9-yards per carry. Those numbers are more about UGA than UK. The Dawgs have put the clamps on all of its opponents. The Wildcats are a run-first offense that should return to its form against Mississippi State. But, it won’t come easy. The Bulldogs had allowed just two rushing touchdowns leading up to last week’s game against Alabama. It’s ranked third in the SEC after surrendering 107 rush yards per game. For the Cats to enjoy success down the stretch, it must re-establish its run game that averages 191 yards per contest.
Brad White’s defense has been consistent and forceful over the past three seasons. The Cats are the SEC’s third ranked unit in total defense after giving up 321 yards per game. It’s also allowing 19 points per contest. UK’s defense was uncharacteristic against Georgia, but has been solid through seven games. Defensive line injuries have led to creative substitution strategies. It’s also highlighted Anwar Stewart’s player development in the front seven.
Inside linebackers DeAndre Square and Jacquez Jones have led the way by combining for 95 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 3 quarterback sacks, and an interception. Josh Paschal has battled through double and triple teams to register 31 stops and 8.5 tackles for loss. The secondary has battled. Cornerback depth has been an issue. But, an experienced third level led by seniors Yusuf Corker, Tyrell Ajian, and Davonte Robinson have excelled. Here’s what UK’s defense must do to win the bye week.
Dial Back In
The Kentucky defense was not efficient against Georgia. The Dawgs averaged 9 yards per play. The Cats had been excellent in not giving up explosive plays leading up to last Saturday. Stetson Bennett gashed the Wildcats for 12.5 yards per pass attempt and 18 per completion. Things weren’t much better against the run. UGA had five ball carriers register runs of 15+yards. Brad White’s defense simply needs to dial back in or refocus for a back half slate that features opposing offenses that can score points in bunches.
Prepare for the Pass
UK needs to shore up its pass defense for a back-half of the schedule that features opponents that are more than capable through the air. First up is Mississippi State’s Air Raid. Mike Leach will test Kentucky’s pass defense. His Bulldogs are averaging 360-pass yards per game. UK cannot afford another outing with an average per attempt of over 10+ yards.
KENTUCKY SPECIAL TEAMS
Kentucky was somewhat efficient in the third phase in its wins over Florida and LSU. That was not the case in Athens. The Dawgs blocked a field goal and PAT. Four blocked kicks in 2021 is a trend that must be addressed.
What Does All This Mean?
2021 has been a fun season. Very few pundits projected a 6-1 start. The back end of the schedule is much more challenging than expected. The Wildcats are poised for a magical season but it’s not going to be easy. First up is a trip to Mississippi State. The Dogs are a tough out in that environment. Mike Leach’s Air Raid has yet to truly take off, but that Bulldog defense can be nasty especially against the run.
The bye week comes at an opportune time in the schedule. The Cats are in a position to rest up, heal up, and dial back in for a late-season run that could lead to a favorable bowl position.