Finals week is finishing up at Kentucky, but the players aren’t the only ones who have had to do some cramming.
Coach Mark Stoops and his defensive staff have one final test of their own this month: facing Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
But it’s almost as though they’re studying for a class they rarely attended.
The Yellow Jackets’ triple-option offense presents a lot of new material for the Cats to absorb.
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“It’s unique,” Stoops said of the run-heavy offense in which three different people might run the ball on any given play. “You don’t see it every day. There’s a lot of misdirection, and it’s just very different.”
Several members of the defensive staff have had experience against it. Coordinator D.J. Eliot played and coached in the Mountain West when Air Force ran it yearly. He’s taken on Navy and several I-AA teams that ran it as well.
“I’ve had some experience in defending these types of offenses, which helped us in 2012 against Georgia Tech, and hopefully some of those experiences will help us this (time), too, against Georgia Tech,” said Eliot, who was an integral part of the Seminoles’ cram session in preparation for the 2012 Atlantic Coast Conference championship game against Georgia Tech. At the time, Stoops had just taken the head coaching job at Kentucky.
That Florida State team was able to use its superior athleticism, speed and size to top Tech 21-15.
Prepping for that game offered a study guide for this month’s practices for the Dec. 31 bowl at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla. Many of the same techniques the Seminoles had to learn in crash-course form, the UK players are getting now.
“If you’re not sound and you don’t play hard, they’re gonna gas you,” Eliot said of facing an offense ranked 10th nationally in rushing at 257.4 yards a game. “We really concentrated that week on each player doing his responsibility and each player playing fast and physical, because that’s critical in a game like this when you play such a difficult offense to defend.
“And those are the same type of things that we’re applying this week as we prepare for Georgia Tech.”
It hasn’t been an easy offense for any defense to go against this season. Army and Navy, who both run the triple option, are No. 1 and No. 4 nationally in rushing touchdowns.
Georgia Tech ran for 3,089 yards this season. Only nine other schools amassed more yards on the ground.
A small wrinkle here or a crease there has been added to the offense since 2012, Stoops said, but the basic playbook is the same.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to stop even with a lot of time to prepare. Georgia Tech has faced Southeastern Conference defenses in bowl games recently, including a 49-34 victory over Mississippi State in the 2014 Orange Bowl.
“He’s had a good idea for a long time what he’s gonna go to,” Stoops said of Tech Coach Paul Johnson. “There’s a lot there. (It’s) probably very simple to him. He’s been doing it a long time. They’re very well coached and they very clearly know who they are.”
That’s meant teaching the Kentucky scout team a complicated offense so it can give UK’s defensive players the right looks when they begin true bowl preparations this week.
When you face teams that run the triple option, the first couple of series can go quickly and confound defenses, something Stoops and Eliot hope to avoid.
Defenses that get caught thinking too much will have problems.
“If you’re thinking then you’re gonna be playing slow, so you have to be reacting,” Eliot said. “So we have to get the players to where they get enough reps in practice that they don’t think at all. They just react. They have to have muscle memory for this type of game.”
The defensive coordinator said UK’s most recent game against a high-powered Louisville offense featuring a versatile running threat in Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson will help the defense prepare for Georgia Tech.
“We can learn from the things we did good and bad in that game,” Eliot said, “and hopefully we can apply it into this next game.”
The key to defending this kind of offense — and it sounds way too elementary — is for each player to understand his responsibility and execute.
“This offense is an equalizer,” said defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh, who has faced the triple option as a coach and a player a handful of times.
“It goes back to this: You have to do your assignment,” Brumbaugh added. “If you’ve got dive, you take dive. If you’ve got pitch, you’ve got to take pitch. That’s what you have to do. That’s what we’ve focused on this week, just doing your job.”
With so much focus on stopping the run, UK also will have to spend some time on the pass and stopping the big-play shots Tech takes when teams load the box.
While just 20.7 percent of the Yellow Jackets’ plays are passes, they get big gains, averaging 20.4 yards per catch.
“The ability to run the ball, it also creates the opportunity for big plays,” Stoops noted of the Jackets, who have had five TD passes of 65 yards or more this season. “So I’m sure both teams will be looking to limit that.”
Kentucky vs. Georgia Tech
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 31
Where: EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
Records: Kentucky 7-5, Georgia Tech 8-4