John Clay: UK football's air game gets a passing grade

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 9, 2012 

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

A sizable, disgruntled segment of the Kentucky football fan base wanted to kick the current staff to the curb at the end of last season and hire then-unemployed Mike Leach.

In an ironic twist, instead of switching to the pass-happy former Kentucky assistant and ex-Texas Tech head coach, the Cats have switched to a version of his air-it-out offense.

So far, anyway, the new flight plan has earned a passing grade.

Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium, quarterback Maxwell Smith completed 30 of 39 passes for four touchdowns, without an interception, as Kentucky routed Kent State 47-14.

That came on the heels of the season-opening loss at Louisville, when Smith threw the football 50 times, the most attempts by a UK quarterback since Andre Woodson's 50 in the 2007 Music City Bowl.

Throw in wide receiver Gene McCaskill's trick-play throw against U of L and Kentucky has accumulated 90 passes in two games. Only 12 teams in all of the Football Bowl Subdivision have thrown the football more times.

(For the record: Leach's final Texas Tech team averaged 51 pass attempts per game.)

Smith ranks sixth nationally in completions per game at 32.5. UK ranks 18th nationally in passing offense and 29th in pass efficiency.

Better yet, after ranking 118th out of 120 teams in total offense last season, the Cats are 45th.

It is early, of course. Kentucky played a Big East team, albeit a ranked Big East team, in the opener. The Cats played a MAC team, one with a losing record a year ago, on Saturday.

It's not too early to say, however, that for all the flak offensive coordinator Randy Sanders took for last year's putrid numbers, the coach has this year done what good coaches always do — tweak his system to fit his talent.

Smith has two obvious strengths. He has a quick release. And he's accurate. The first strength takes pressure off a young offensive line. The second helps an embattled receiving corp.

That UK's pass-catchers were previously known for their drops may have had more to do with the passes than the catches.

Through two games, Smith has thrown a consistent football. There's a lot to be said for on time, on target. A quarterback doesn't complete 73 percent of his passes with a lot drops.

How will this rampant air travel play when the SEC big boys come to town? It won't be easy. It never is easy.

Ask Texas A&M and Missouri. The SEC's two newest members saw the league's welcome wagon pull up to the doorstep and drive through the living room and out the back door, leaving plenty of wreckage behind on Saturday.

Florida visited College Station and blanked Texas A&M in the second half to beat the Aggies 20-17. Georgia brought its "Old Man Football" — the label one foolish Missouri Tiger used to describe the Bulldogs' offense — to the other Columbia on Saturday night and mashed Mizzou 41-20.

Meanwhile, Alabama blanked Western Kentucky, LSU allowed Washington a field goal, Mississippi State held Auburn to 10 points and South Carolina led East Carolina 41-3 before ECU finally scored a touchdown.

And, oh yeah, before UK enters conference competition, the Cats play host to Western Kentucky next Saturday. After two games, including a loss at defending national champion Alabama on Saturday, the Hilltoppers are 12th nationally in total defense.

That's right: 12th.

At least where UK's air game is concerned, the Cats are off to a flying start.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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