The Kentucky football team has looked like the Monsters of the Midway from the second quarter on this season.
The Wildcats have outscored their opponents 41-6 in the second quarter, 24-7 in the third and 58-5 in the fourth.
Now if they could only get that first quarter squared away. Kentucky has been painfully slow out of the box in the first five games, getting outscored 21-17 in the opening period.
The Cats haven't scored on their opening drive all season, and their only first-quarter touchdowns came against Norfolk State and Middle Tennessee State. UK has generated only 11 first-quarter first downs in five games. The players and the coaches have recognized and addressed the slow starts.
"We stress that at every practice and before every game," quarterback Mike Hartline said. "We try to get out fast. To tell you the truth, I don't know what it is. It just hasn't happened. We just need to work faster and harder. We need to get to the point to where we don't have to come back and score all the time. We need to get to where we can get a good lead and have our offense on the field for 10, 12, 15 plays at a time. When our offense can show they can stay on the field for more than six or seven plays and not have to rely on our defense, that's when we can become a big-time factor in the SEC."
Offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said several early UK drives have been killed by mistakes. The Cats crossed midfield on their opening possession against Louisville, but a Hartline fumble put them in a third-and-12 and essentially killed the drive.
On UK's first drive against Alabama, Hartline converted a third-and-3 pass to DeMoreo Ford for a first down into Crimson Tide territory, but an illegal-procedure penalty negated the play and forced third-and-8. UK was then whistled for a delay of game, and Tony Dixon dropped a third-and-13 pass from Hartline.
"We come out and get a first down on the first drive and line up wrong," Phillips said. "Now we're into a third-and-8, then it's third-and-13. That's hard to manage. One thing we've got to do is play smart and play faster at the start of the game."
One play that got the UK offense jump-started against Alabama was the screen pass. Trailing 14-0 in the second quarter, Hartline completed back-to-back screens, the first a 36-yarder to Derrick Locke and the second a 26-yard touchdown to Dicky Lyons Jr.
Screens have been a big part of the UK offense under Phillips. Former running back Rafael Little and receiver Keenan Burton were both adept at taking short dump-offs and turning them into long gainers.
The Wildcats didn't run many screens in the first four games, but they were a perfect remedy for an aggressive Alabama defense.
"It slows people down," Phillips said of UK's screens. "That slowed down their pass rush a bit after we hit on those back-to-back screens. "We've got to do those things to handle blitzes and speed rushers off the edge. You definitely want to run them versus teams that get up the field. It's like in baseball, you don't want to throw a curveball to a bad fastball hitter."
But screen passes are more complicated than they look on the surface. The receivers and offensive line both have to execute their blocks perfectly, and the pass-catcher has to have the instincts to follow his blocks and navigate through traffic. With UK's inexperienced receiving corps, it's taken awhile for the offense to get in sync with the screens.
"It's hard to execute," Lyons explained. "It takes awhile to learn how to block correctly. The O-line has got to get out there, the receivers have to figure out who's the most dangerous man (on defense). You really don't get comfortable running it until you get out there and get different looks at it, but I think the young guys are starting to get used to it."
And leave it up to Lyons to come up with a unique reason he likes the screen pass.
"Screens are my favorites because you actually get the ball in your hands without having to run a route," he said. "It's like being a running back."
The Cats run several variations of the screen and will run them from different parts of the field with different players. In addition to Lyons and Locke, UK ran screens to tight end Maurice Grinter and freshman receiver Eric Adeyemi. Locke and Adeyemi could have broken a couple more big plays on screens, but Hartline lost the ball trying to get it to Locke, and the screen pass to Adeyemi was tipped at the line of scrimmage.
South Carolina is another aggressive defense that does a lot of stunting and blitzing, so the screen figures to be a vital part of the UK game plan again this week.
"(South Carolina) moves around a lot," Phillips said. "I'm sure after watching the Alabama tape, they'll have a guy assigned to the screen. We just have to come up with different kinds of screens to try to hit on them."