Kentucky football: 5 things UK needs to do to handle UT
Kentucky football had a bad week. But despite the 31-17 loss to Mississippi State, the Wildcats are still on track for a great season. That said, Saturday’s game against Tennessee became substantially more important after the ‘Cats’ 2nd straight loss. With that in mind, here are 5 things UK needs to do to get back on the winning track:
1. Establish C-Rod
Not having an effective version of the SEC’s leading rusher has throttled UK’s offense in its pair of losses. Chris Rodriguez Jr. has apparently been battling a health issue, but Kentucky offensive coordinator Liam Coen insisted that he’s okay now. Why is Rodriguez important? Well, aside from all those rushing yards, consider that he averages 5.8 yards per carry on 1st-down runs. There’s a big difference between 2nd and 4 and 2nd and 8, 9 or more, which Kentucky has often faced in the last 2 games. Aside from eating clock, gaining yards and punishing defenses in the red zone, Kentucky needs Rodriguez to keep it on schedule offensively. Which brings us to …
2. Take advantage of Tennessee in the passing game
Kentucky is last in the SEC in passing yardage, but the Wildcats are 8th in passing efficiency. If Will Levis can avoid costly interceptions, they’re even better. The good news is that UT is allowing 249 passing yards per game, 13th in the SEC, ahead of only Vandy. UT has given up a dozen 30-plus-yard passing plays, tied for next to worst in the SEC. Kentucky, by comparison, has allowed an SEC-best 3 such plays. No, Kentucky doesn’t have to put up gaudy stats or throw 40 times. But the Wildcats need to shake Wan’Dale Robinson and Josh Ali loose on a couple of big plays.
3. Get some pressure on Hendon Hooker
Hooker leads the SEC in passing efficiency — in large part because of his 19 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions, but also because of his 9.5 yards per passing attempt, which also leads the SEC. So how can Kentucky handle Hooker? Well, Tennessee doesn’t protect him very well. The Vols have allowed 28 sacks, dead last in the SEC. Kentucky picked up a pair of quick sacks against Mississippi State but barely got any pressure on Will Rogers the rest of the game — and watched him morph into Joe Montana. UK needs to avoid repeating that mistake on Saturday.
4. Finish in the red zone
Another issue for Tennessee is red zone defense. The Vols are last in the SEC, giving up scores on 28 of 30 red-zone defensive possessions. Even worse, 23 of the 28 scores allowed were touchdowns — meaning that 77 percent of opposing teams getting to UT’s 20 got to the end zone. This is the 12th-worst percentage in the SEC, and it’s worth noting that the only 2 below the Vols — Missouri and LSU — are teams Kentucky has already defeated.
5. Stay within -1 in turnovers
It’s about the worst-kept secret in the SEC that Kentucky has a turnover problem. Actually, 2 problems. First, Kentucky’s 16 turnovers are tied for next to worst in the SEC. But worse yet, not only are the 4 turnovers forced by Kentucky dead last in the SEC, but 13th-place Auburn has forced 7 — nearly double Kentucky’s total. Meanwhile, Tennessee is pretty unexceptional both in turnovers forced (11) and given (8). Last year in Knoxville, Jarrett Guarantano threw the ball like he was colorblind. Hooker won’t do that. But Kentucky would prefer to avoid a game like 2017, when it last beat UT in Lexington despite going -4 in turnovers. Kentucky was outgained by 74 yards, gave up 4 turnovers but somehow won 29-26. While Kentucky would take the result, holding it to -1 or better on turnovers is key to not needing a statistical miracle to pull off a victory.