Defense and Ground Game Propels the New-Look Kentucky Wildcats
After five years of mediocrity, Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops finally seems to have found the right blend of offensive approach and talent to execute his vision. At 5-0, the Wildcats are not only on pace to finish with their best record since their 9-3 finish in 1984, but a New Year’s Day bowl berth would be a massive jump from their routine Music City Bowl appearance.
Still, there has been skepticism each week from the public as to whether the Wildcats are legitimate. They were 13.5-point underdogs against Florida, 10-point dogs to an underachieving Mississippi State team at home and enter this week as six-point underdogs against an unranked Texas A&M. Some of it is fair. Kentucky’s passing offense has created just 153 yards per game and starter Terry Wilson has five interceptions to just two touchdowns, but the 13th-ranked Wildcats have hammered opponents 24-6 in the first quarter as they have relied on future NFLers Benny Snell Jr., safety Mike Edwards, linebacker Jordan Jones and pass-rusher Josh Allen to make big plays.
Stoops’ defense has gone through several identities, just as his offense has over the past six seasons. Known for implementing a conservative but effective 4-3 base defense after serving under Jimbo Fisher, he has been flexible enough to adjust to his personnel with the spread offense wave finally overwhelming the SEC.
He utilized a 3-4 base defense over the last few seasons until recently shifting back. Some of this is not overly consequential, as both college football and the NFL has become more 4-2-5-centric than anything for the majority of downs, but Stoops’ willingness to adjust has brought out the best of his defensive stars without compromising the weaker parts of the unit.
In their latest win against South Carolina, the defense was more akin to an NFL defense as far as pre-snap and post-snap adjustments. Even without blitzing, Stoops was able to create confusion on junior Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley as his safeties would rotate from an open, two-high position pre-snap, to closing up the middle of the field to force his progressions and buy time for the pass-rush.
Other times, like on the interception above, there were little wrinkles built in for a 3rd and 4 to delay his decision-making. Right defensive end Jamar Watson is actually their primary SAM and he shows blitz, but drops into the flat to cover the back, opening up a wide delayed lane for linebacker Daniel Kash to spy a potential scramble.
The secondary is playing Cover 1, a straight-forward alignment that stresses the defense to win their isolated matchups. Bentley is pressured and puts up a flailing prayer, but the athletes in the secondary had each of their assignments where they needed them to make a stop.
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Kentucky has not been able to consistently win these situations against conference foes in years past. It was not until some of Stoops’ earliest recruiting classes reached their final seasons that this was manageable. Their experience has boosted their level of consistency dramatically, to the point of ranking third in the country in points allowed per-game and 26th in third down percentage (46.6 percent).
They’ve had massive success as a man-heavy defense regardless of the alignment. It has been a notable difference boasting a rangy single-high safety instead of having the defense to sit with two-high bodies.
Their ability to create pressure with Allen as an improved presence is a key to much of their jump. With largely the same personnel in 2017, the defense has allowed opposing passers to complete over 64 percent of attempts and 6.2 yards-per-play average over the course of the season. They were outgained by an average of 77 yards-per-game.
Compare that to this season, when opposing quarterbacks are completing under 51 percent of attempts and the defense is giving up 138 fewer yards-per-game and just 4.5 yards-per-play. This has been an elite defense thus far, despite facing lauded offensive designers Dan Mullen and Joe Moorhead.
Upcoming games against Texas A&M, Missouri and Georgia will test them, but athletically the only team that is likely to make them look like a second-tier SEC team is the loaded Bulldogs.
Years of physical growth, the unlikely development of stars and schematic tweaks helped the defense, while the offense sorely needed an overhaul for this current iteration of Kentucky to be realized.
Stoops originally committed to the Air Raid his first two seasons and the results were disastrous. We know the Air Raid has many variations, and that it works as long as the play scripts and on-field talent aren’t disastrous. Unfortunately, Patrick Towles was not a good fit despite offensive coordinator (and currently successful Troy head coach) Neal Brown’s presence.
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The offense averaged 33 passes a game in 2014 and 2015, but Towles sputtered to throw just 23 touchdowns and 23 interceptions with a pedestrian 56.7 completion rate. That is not how a healthy Air Raid functions.
Since then, the Wildcats offense has leapt from 24.7 points-per-game in 2015 and 25.5 in 2017 to 32.4 thus far in 2018. Eddie Gran’s embrace of the dynamic running trio of Benny Snell, Terry Wilson, and Asim Rose has made everyone forget that this same head coach once employed an Air Raid disciple. Unsurprisingly, he helped build Auburn’s deep running back stable in the 2000’s, including Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams, and Rudi Johnson.
Along with a punishing and athletic offensive line, Wilson and Snell are capable of producing on a variety of looks. Split zone from the pistol has been particularly effective as Snell has shown enough as a nimble runner to maximize yards before contact. Much like Derrick Henry did for Alabama, Snell is also punishing in the open field, making him a well-balanced terror for defenses to deal with.
Left tackle E.J. Price, a transfer from USC, has been phenomenal thus far. He’s been used as a pulling tackle at times and his range as a zone-blocker is similarly effective. According to CFB Film Room, he has yet to allow a hurry, hit, or sack in 84 pass blocking snaps, too.
Having Wilson, a former Oregon Duck, has been an x-factor for the scheme and offense, despite his lack of consistent passing chops. He’s a terrific runner for the position, able to pull off a unique fake pitch like this below.
It’s not as unique as Gus Malzahn’s or Matt Canada’s pre-snap packagings, but it’s been good enough for the 12th-most rushing yards-per-game this year and 16 touchdowns. They’re averaging nearly 100 more yards-per-game on the ground than a year ago, almost solely due to the difference between 2017 starter Stephen Johnson and Wilson.
There are concerns about whether this Wildcats team can hit 10 wins, despite the hot start. They are losing the penalty battle by three calls and 15 yards on average and their turnover rate is 1:1 right now. On one hand, if they can improve those two areas, this team can continue to ascend. If not, fringe games against Texas A&M and Missouri become more difficult.
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The Aggies boast an elite run-stopping unit. If the Wildcats can plow through it, or Wilson proves to be more dynamic than his 6.4 yards-per-attempt average, they will likely win and respect will come nationally. This week, that is on the line.
The framework is there for Kentucky to have a special season. This is not a team winning with a dynamic, unique scheme that will be picked up by the NFL in a few years, but the elements have been effective with the right playmakers for 15 years in college football. That may just be enough to get Kentucky to 0 wins for the first time since 1977, and third time in school history.