While we can debate whether Kentucky football was exposed in its 45-7 no-show loss at Mississippi State on Saturday, one aspect is inarguable.
Kentucky’s 2017 offense pales in comparison to its 2016 version. The departures of leading rusher Boom Williams, offensive line stalwart Jon Toth and leading receiver Jeff Badet, along with season-ending injuries to offensive tackle Cole Mosier (ACL) and receiver Dorian Baker (dislocated ankle), have obviously taken their toll.
Count me among those who counted on the Cats to be better offensively with Stephen Johnson returning at quarterback, freshman record-setter Benny Snell returning at running back and UK in its second season of Eddie Gran’s scheme, but that hasn’t been the case.
Last year, Gran’s first as UK’s offensive coordinator, Kentucky finished 61st in the nation in total offense at 420.2 yards per game. Through seven games this year, UK ranks 113th out of 130 FBS teams with an average of just 336.7 yards per game.
A year ago, with Williams and Snell each rushing for over 1,000 yards, Kentucky ranked 20th nationally in rushing with an average of 234.15 yards per game. This year, Kentucky is 97th in rushing at just 135.0 yards per game.
Against Mississippi State on Saturday, Snell rushed for a career-low 18 yards on seven carries. His previous low was 38 yards on eight carries in a 34-6 loss last season at Alabama.
If misery loves company, Snell wasn’t alone. In the passing game, Johnson threw a career-high two interceptions and failed to throw a touchdown pass for just the second time in his last nine games.
And as a team, UK gained just 260 total yards, the third time this season the Cats have failed to gain at least 300. That happened just twice last year — 161 in the Alabama loss and 149 at Florida, which was another 45-7 shellacking.
“You never think you’re going to get your face waxed, not this game,” said Gran on Saturday when asked if he saw the outcome coming. “Obviously, I didn’t get our guys prepared well enough. We weren’t physical enough. We didn’t execute. I didn’t call good plays.”
In preparation for Todd Grantham’s aggressive Mississippi State defense, Gran said he felt like at least one out of every eight plays UK had to produce at least a 12-yard run or a 16-yard pass. Out of the 59 offensive snaps, UK ended up with two runs of 12 or more yards and two completed passes of 16 or more.
“That had been the recipe for everyone else that had beaten them,” said Gran of MSU, which had lost to Georgia (31-3) and Auburn (49-10). “We just didn’t get it done. I didn’t call them enough or I didn’t call the right ones. Give them credit, they did a nice job.”
Without Williams and Badet, UK’s best home run threats a year ago, you’d think the Cats would struggle to produce chunk-yardage plays, but that hasn’t necessarily been the case.
Through seven games, the 2016 Cats had 13 runs of 20 or more yards, compared to 11 this year. Through seven games, the 2016 Cats had hit on 16 passes of 20 or more yards, while this year’s team has completed 23.
Those in search of hope should note that last year’s offense played its best football the final five games of the regular season, including 582 yards against Missouri, 635 yards at Tennessee and 581 yards against Louisville.
Through seven games in 2016, UK was averaging 379.6 yards per game. Over the final five, that same offense averaged 503.2 yards per game.
“The good thing,” Gran said Saturday, “is we’ve got a lot of games left to play.”
Tennessee at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. (SEC)
SEC football standings
Lost 45-7 at Miss State
Lost 45-7 at Alabama
Won 68-21 over Idaho
Won 45-7 over Tennessee
Won 52-20 at Arkansas
Won 40-24 at Ole Miss
Won 45-7 over Kentucky
Lost 40-24 to LSU
Lost 52-20 to Auburn