Running down a dream season: How Kentucky became an SEC East contender
LEXINGTON, Ky. — One of the emerging narratives of college football’s week 9 is Kentucky holding the second place spot in the SEC East, and emerging as a legitimate contender to represent the division in Atlanta in early December at the SEC title game.
It might be overreaction, but the Wildcats — for the first time in four decades — have a puncher’s chance at playing for the title. The question that the circumstances beg is how did the lightly regarded Wildcats get here?
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You can blame the mediocrity of the East itself, which is a narrative we’ve discussed many times and in relative depth. But that’s not all that’s in play. The East has been bad before, and Kentucky has floundered at the bottom of a bad East as easily as they have in the division’s better years.
The other narrative lies at the top of the SEC’s rushing stats. The familiar (and highly ranked) squads at the top of the list are the usual suspects: Auburn, Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU. Led by Stanley “Boom” Williams (below), Kentucky is fifth, with a cool 219.5 rushing yards per game.
This puts the Wildcats ahead of, among others, Georgia with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel (by 46 yards per game), ahead of Tennessee with Josh Dobbs, Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd (by 54 yards per game), and ahead of Arkansas, with their Big Ten-style game plan and the SEC’s No. 4 rusher, Rawleigh Williams III (by 59 yards per game).
The last time UK reached even 200 yards per game rushing was 1993, when Bill Curry’s option attack drove UK to the Peach Bowl with 210.5 rushing yards per game. The last season when UK eclipsed its current totals? Go all the way back to 1979, two years removed from a 10-1, Top 10 season.
After Mark Stoops’ first two offensive coordinators at Kentucky (Troy coach Neal Brown, Southern Miss coordinator Shannon Dawson) each arrived with promises of Air Raids, neither spent much time on the ground game, which maxed out at 162 yards per game last year with Dawson.
This season, with new coordinator Eddie Gran, began with a similar plan. Pocket passing QB Drew Barker was called on to lead the Kentucky offense, which put up a great half in the opener against Southern Miss, jumping to a 35-17 lead. Kentucky then fall apart and lost that game 44-35, and was blasted the following week at Florida 45-7.
The ground game was … well, less then extraordinary. Kentucky averaged 96 yards rushing on the ground in those two games. This was surprising because the interior of the UK line, led by senior star Jon Toth, was considered to be a strength.
On the first series of the Wildcats’ third game of the season, Barker either injured his back or re-aggravated a prior back injury. Whichever is the case, he has not returned, and seems fairly unlikely to do so. Enter immediately two new components of the Kentucky offense.
Backup QB Stephen Johnson was a junior transfer from Grambling and JUCO College of the Desert. He played briefly in the defeat at Florida, and was otherwise greener than the turf at Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium. The other change was freshman running back Benny Snell, a 5-11, 220-pound, Westerville, Ohio, product who had impressed his coaches sufficiently to avoid redshirting.
In the first two games of the season, Kentucky featured Williams, a junior who rushed for 1,341 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Williams, a 5-8, 196-pound scatback, might be the Wildcats’ best player.
In those two losses to open the season, he had 25 carries for 160 yards. Williams was backed up by senior Jojo Kemp, a Wildcat package specialist who led UK in rushing in 2013, and had amassed 1,360 yards and 13 scores on the ground at UK.
But once Barker was hurt, Kentucky had to change its offensive philosophy. On the fly — or perhaps — on the ground.
Johnson is not an accomplished passer, but he possesses speed and athleticism that opened up some run/pass option doors in the UK playbook. And Snell is a bowling ball of a back — hard to bring down, able to turn 1-2 yard gains into 4-5 yard gains, and virtually unstoppable in the Wildcat formation himself.
Kentucky didn’t panic under the steady hand of Gran, and instead, immediately began to rely heavily on the run, using the pass as a change of pace. The Wildcats ran a fair number of snaps from the Wildcat formation, and have incorporated not only Snell and veteran reserve Kemp, but Williams, and even Johnson on trick plays.
When not resorting to the Wildcat, Kentucky often powers ahead behind its hard-charging offensive line. And the results — right away — were striking.
Kentucky’s rushing yardage by week since the change at the beginning of the New Mexico State game: 381, 216, 72 (that would be Alabama), 258, 262, 377. It’s probably not coincidental that UK’s record in those six games was 5-1.
Williams rushed 84 times over those six games for 661 yards, pushing his season total to 821, third in the SEC. Meanwhile, freshman Snell (below) has carried the ball 118 times for exactly 661 yards, with his eight rushing touchdowns tying for third in the SEC behind Alabama QB Jalen Hurts and Texas A&M QB Trevor Knight, who each managed nine.
Veteran RB Kemp has added 145 yards and three scores in a relief role, and QB Johnson has tacked on 118 yards and a score — in addition to 1,128 passing yards, seven touchdowns, and three interceptions in the air.
A thin Kentucky defense has also benefited from the ground-pounding ways of the UK offense. In those first two “Air Raid” losses, Kentucky had possession for just 19 and 22 minutes, leaving the undersized Kentucky defensive front sucking wind late in the game. Since the change? UK’s time of possession in minutes has been: 34, 32, 30, 32, 32, and 39. The defense thus magically went from allowing 542 yards per game before the offensive shift to 381 yards per game since.
So how did Kentucky get where they are — a mild upset and a mid-sized upset away from possibly facing Alabama again for the SEC title? Well, it took a terrible start, a serious injury, and the opportunity to correct a lot of mistakes by starting again — and starting on the ground.