Kentucky football: 5 things Wildcats need to do to avoid offensive meltdown
Three games ago, the Kentucky offense scored 41 points. For much of Saturday’s 20-10 loss at Missouri, it seemed unlikely that Kentucky would gain 41 yards. The 2-3 Wildcats have gone from a team with a bevy of offensive weapons and a shaky defense, to a team with a defense that left everything on the field and an offense that seemed to have been introduced to each other minutes before kickoff.
With a back half of the schedule featuring Georgia, Florida and Alabama awaiting, where does Kentucky go from here? UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran has previously shown himself to be the master of the improvised rebuild. And he has one waiting here. Here are five things UK needs to do to avoid a total offensive meltdown.
1. Focus on the identity
Among the many troubling decisions of Saturday’s game was choosing to receive the opening kickoff and then calling downfield passes on first and second down. Yes, 3rd-and-10 is a passing situation … and the 6-yard gain on a screen did nothing to help. Right out of the gate, the message was delivered. Kentucky didn’t know who they were. Funny, because in the past two weeks, Kentucky had looked like a dominating defensive team (kick the ball) and a physical running team (run the ball). When UK began the game going against their usual modus operandi, it wasn’t a good sign.
2. Give someone else a shot at QB
Yes, we all know that Terry Wilson won at The Swamp and won at UT. He’ll finish his UK career with a winning record as a starting QB. But 2020 Terry (particularly since Week 2) doesn’t look like 2018 Terry. In the past three games, Terry is 23-for-44 for 209 yards. And yes, two of those games were UK wins. But with a quarterback who is struggling to complete 50 percent of his passes and is averaging less than 5 yards per attempt, it’s fair to question his play. Maybe it’s the ground game, you think: Wilson has had 26 rushes for 80 yards in those three games. Given that even in Saturday’s meltdown, UK had running backs who averaged 8.6 and 5.3 yards per carry, that’s not exceptional, either.
Particularly given Wilson’s insistence that he won’t apply for a redshirt for his lost 2019 season or use the “free” 2020 season to return to UK next year, there’s plenty of reason to give his backups a shot. Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood has looked appreciably smoother than Wilson, and true freshman Beau Allen may be the QB of the future. There’s no reason to tie Wilson to the bench exactly. But there’s no reason to watch him pass for 35 yards for the game, either. Keep starting him, but get a quicker hook, and have your backups ready to roll.
3. Contemplate the running back rotation
Everybody likes senior back A.J. Rose. In the shadow of Benny Snell, Rose has amassed a solid career. But for much of 2020, Rose has been sort of the compromise back. He’s quicker and shiftier than Chris Rodriguez and stronger inside than Kavosiey Smoke. The staff apparently likes him in blitz pickup. But continuing to rely on Rose is like a compromise that leaves Kentucky lacking. The counter of what was noted above is that Rose isn’t as strong as Rodriguez or as fast on the edge as Smoke. Now that Smoke is apparently healthy, there’s no reason not to go to Rodriguez as the featured back, Smoke as the home-run guy for a change of pace, and Rose as the third back. Freshman JuTahn McClain is also worthy of some snaps. Again, nobody is saying to ignore Rose. But when push comes to shove, Kentucky has a bright future of guys who would benefit from some extra snaps and carries.
4. Tighten the wide receiver rotation
In Wilson’s defense, Kentucky’s receiving corps has been absolutely awful. Senior Josh Ali is the featured receiver, but Saturday’s loss included a painful drop and a fumble. That said, Ali’s 22 catches are more than triple the next-highest total. Freshman DeMarcus Harris has 7 grabs — for 39 yards. Akeem Hayes showed some promise, but then had a Twitter fit which apparently put him on the wrong side of the staff. Allen Dailey Jr. has good hands but isn’t getting separation. Kentucky’s tight ends are also good athletes, but neither Keaton Upshaw nor Justin Rigg has much to show for that reputation — 9 total catches between them.
Kentucky needs to find the three or four players who are most capable and give them the vast majority of the snaps. In a run-heavy offense, keeping a receiver “fresh” mostly ends up keeping them uncomfortable with the feel of the game. Buy Ali some stick-um, and play a couple of guys who can get separation — freshman Michael Drennen would be worth a long look, for one. Get the ball in the hands of your best athletes in creative ways — jet sweeps, Utah passes, etc.
5. Simply everything
To be honest, Wilson’s biggest problem doesn’t seem to be fear of re-injuring his bad leg. He makes some nice throws — witness his dropped-in 26-yard strike to Ali for UK’s lone touchdown on Saturday. He’s thinking WAY too much. Every run-pass option seems to have the wrong read. Every QB scramble ends with Wilson either stepping out of bounds and taking a loss or looping a hopeless lob into the sideline, even in situations where he’d be better served by aiming at a receiver and rolling the dice.
Aside from getting back to basics in philosophical terms, Wilson will play best (and Gatewood or Allen might, too) if the calls are simple. Forget RPOs. Call a QB run or a handoff. Forget five wide with guys running all around. Pick a side of the field. Give Terry two options, and tell him to throw it to them or take off. Kentucky’s offense doesn’t necessarily have to win them a ton of games. But as Saturday showed, it does have to not lose them games.