Kentucky football: Safety-first offense leaves UK questioning heading into bye week
Joey Gatewood looked to the sideline as the seconds ticked away Saturday. This was a day when he completed 60 percent of his passes, when running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. broke 100 yards rushing and UK more than doubled the rushing production of a typical Georgia opponent. This was a day when Kentucky held the Georgia offense to just 14 points, and grabbed a pair of interceptions from Stetson Bennett.
Nobody seemed very sure about exactly what Kentucky wanted to do offensively. Not head coach Mark Stoops, who watched his offense turn in its fourth straight sub-250-yard game. Not offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, whose game plan appeared to be to run the ball, throw safe, conservative passes and risk absolutely nothing. And as the final seconds ticked away, not Gatewood himself. The ball was never snapped.
Kentucky losing to Georgia was not the story. That happened for the 11th time in a row. Kentucky struggling to put up points against the outstanding Georgia defense was not the story, particularly with Gatewood subbed in for Terry Wilson, who was present on the sideline in street clothes. The story was that Kentucky seemed oddly complacent, nearly content to lose 14-3 without ever trying anything particularly interesting on offense.
It was an excellent game for Rodriguez, who gained 108 yards on 20 carries for the Wildcats. Left unsaid is how many yards Rodriguez could have gained with any kind of passing threat to draw defenders out of the box.
Gatewood looked unrattled for most of his first UK start, completing 15 of 25 passes for 91 yards. Yes, 3.6 yards per pass attempt. Gatewood did not complete a pass longer than 11 yards. Indeed, he rarely threw a ball in the vicinity of a receiver who went farther. His 16 carries for 23 yards indicated both the conservative game plan and the ineffective nature of same.
For much of the day, Kentucky’s deeply conservative offensive style suited the game. After Georgia rammed their first possession down Kentucky’s throat with a 12-play, 86-yard touchdown drive, the Wildcats trod carefully. Indeed, they mounted their best drive of the day, a 19-play, 77-yard drive that ate more than 10 minutes of game clock and ended in a 34-yard Matt Ruffolo field goal. After a timely interception near the end of the half from UK defensive lineman Phil Hoskins, the Wildcats went to halftime with a modest 7-3 deficit. The conservative game plan, while not glamorous, had been functional.
But after Georgia’s 7-play, 75-yard drive to open the second half, Kentucky trailed 14-3. Still within reach … but time to unshackle the offense, to take a couple of downfield shots, maybe a well-timed trick play or two. Or not.
From there on, Kentucky held the ball for about 16 of the game’s final 26 1/2 minutes. The Wildcats ran 31 more offensive plays and gained a total of 83 yards. Runs up the middle, quick-hitter screen passes and a lot of time tick, tick, ticking away. At some point, probably during Kentucky’s 12-play, 33-yard drive in the middle of the fourth quarter, it became evident that the ace up the sleeve, the surprise trick play, the actual deep pass — none of these things were in the playbook. And just like that, time ebbed out on Kentucky’s chances of at least a .500 season in 2020.
For Kentucky, the reality is that, yes, Stoops has built an excellent defense. The Wildcats have allowed 43 total points in their past four games. They have scored 3 touchdowns on their own during that same period. And with Benny Snell in Pittsburgh and Lynn Bowden in Miami, the Wildcats have shown pretty much no offense at all in 2020.
Rodriguez has been very good, with 413 rushing yards on just 75 carries. Kentucky’s offensive line has still done a credible job of opening holes for the rushing game. The passing game has been the worst in the SEC, and spreading the blame for that failure will probably be a popular activity of the bye week.
Wilson has struggled with decision-making and costly turnovers. Gatewood looked comfortable leading a 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust attack, but it yielded just 3 points. Kentucky’s wide receivers seem to do a horrible job of creating separation and catching the football. Gran’s game plan for Georgia seemed to be much more focused on minimizing damage than giving the Wildcats a chance to succeed.
For the 2-4 Wildcats, the bye week will probably be less about determining who is to blame than determining how to fix the problems. The QB situation will be wildly uncertain heading into UK’s game with Vanderbilt in two weeks. If Kentucky has any standout wide receivers, the Wildcats will probably be figuring out who they are and how to involve them. And Gran, who has shown himself as the master re-inventor of broken offenses in Lexington, has a doozy of a job in trying to fix this one. Hopefully, the Wildcats will at least know what they want to do the next time the UK quarterback stands under center and looks to the sideline.