UK Football

Kentucky’s offense out to prove it can be a much more powerful force

Kentucky Wildcats wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. (1) stiff armed Eastern Michigan Eagles linebacker Ike Spearman (9) as UK defeated Eastern Michigan 24-20 at Kroger Field on Saturday Sept. 30, 2017 in Lexington, Ky.
Kentucky Wildcats wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. (1) stiff armed Eastern Michigan Eagles linebacker Ike Spearman (9) as UK defeated Eastern Michigan 24-20 at Kroger Field on Saturday Sept. 30, 2017 in Lexington, Ky.

It’s not like Kentucky’s offense hasn’t been physical this season.

There were parts of games — like the second half against South Carolina or almost all of the game against Florida — that Kentucky looked like the same dominant, physical force that powered its way through several defenses last season.

Which makes games like last week’s against Eastern Michigan — when the Cats amassed their fewest yards of the season and struggled to make explosive plays — so perplexing.

That lackluster performance had Coach Mark Stoops calling for a more potent, powerful offense on Saturday against an anemic Missouri defense that is last in the Southeastern Conference, allowing 452.5 yards and 40 points a game.

“We need to play better,” Stoops said of a UK offense that is No. 13 in the league at 322.2 yards a game. “We need to have that attitude that we talked about and the physical mentality.”

Kentucky’s players have heard various theories about their struggles. They don’t think it’s about losing too many pieces from last season or that 2016 was an anomaly or that the play-calling is poor.

Playing physical has nothing to do with those things and everything to do with swagger and attitude, they said.

“We’ve got to have an edge about us every time we go on the field,” running back Benny Snell said. “We have to come out and the offensive line has to win, has to dominate.

“For me, I’ve got to learn if there’s a third-and-3 or a third-and-2, I’ve got to run through that guy. I’ve got to get the first down. That’s just things we’ve got to handle. Just coming out, have that edge about us like we used to do.”

This team needs to figure out how to play more aggressively every series, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said.

We needed to be physical every snap, and I didn’t think we were,” Gran said of the last outing. “And they didn’t think they were either. They know. It was a good lesson to be learned.”

Being physical isn’t just about playing harder, but smarter, offensive lineman Nick Haynes said. He pointed to a pancake block by teammate Logan Stenberg last week, but the blocked player landed in the hole where the UK running back was going.

“Stuff like that, just the little details,” Haynes said.

And physical play isn’t just a discussion about the offensive line.

“I’m also talking about the running backs,” Gran said. “I’m also talking about our receivers on the perimeter. ... We’ve gotta be better everywhere physically for us to get the run game where everybody wants it to be.”

‘Suck it up and stay in there’

One of the most important developments for Kentucky this season has been the depth and versatility of its interior defensive line, with upward of nine guys swapping in at the three spots.

That plan likely will be thwarted this week against Missouri and its high-paced offense.

“It’ll be very difficult, at times, impossible,” Stoops said of trying to mix and match defensive linemen. “So we cannot do that. If it’s near our sideline we’ll have some ways to do that if we’re communicating before. If it’s on our side we’ll be able to sub once in a while but never if the ball is in the middle or far sideline.

“So, our guys are coached up on that here this week. They have to suck it up and stay in there until there’s a break.”

UK will need to do its part and get some stops defensively. The head coach thought the Cats handled the pace and change of tempo pretty well last season. Kentucky practices against it on a weekly basis so the defense won’t be rusty when it hits a team like Missouri.

“The big thing is staying on top of it and being sharp mentally and having an urgency to get set up,” Stoops said.

Last season, not getting set up could have cost the Cats a score against the Tigers, but on that one particular play, the touchdown pass was overthrown. “You have to be on point every snap, and that’s the pressure it puts on you.”

Bye babble

It’s not the ideal scenario for Kentucky, which is banged up and playing its sixth straight game on Saturday before the bye week. The Cats are meeting a Missouri team that is coming off a bye.

Both coaches talked about the factor it could play in the game.

Coach Barry Odom called the Tigers’ down time productive: “Got some guys healed up who have been injured.”

A week of rest can fix other things that ail you, too, which is a huge concern to Stoops.

“I’m sure they had their bye week and had a chance to hit the reset button and want to start this season, their second part of this season, much different,” he said. “I anticipate them coming out and playing extremely fast. Backs against the wall, and I know they’ll play well.”

News and notes

The status of Kentucky senior Charles Walker is still not clear going into the Missouri game, with Stoops saying he wasn’t “sure yet” when asked about whether Walker would play on Thursday.

The slot receiver and punt returner missed most of last week’s game after suffering a rib injury.

If Walker is a no-go against Missouri, freshman Lynn Bowden will take his place at both spots.

“It’ll be an opportunity for guys like Lynn to get in there and make some plays, make things happen,” Stoops said, noting UK also has bigger sets available and could move Garrett Johnson to the inside receiver spot as well.

▪  On another injury front, Stoops wasn’t ready to discuss the condition of junior linebacker Jordan Jones, saying he’d offer an update next week. On the coach’s radio show this week, Stoops said there was more evaluation being done on Jones’ left shoulder, which he injured versus Eastern Kentucky a month ago.

▪  Missouri will be playing its first game of the season away from Columbia. Its four games at home have come against Missouri State, South Carolina, Purdue and Auburn. The Tigers have gone 1-3, losing its last three games by a combined score of 117-30.

Odom doesn’t necessarily mind the change of scenery.

“It may be good for us because on either side of the ball we haven’t played that well here at home,” the Missouri coach said. “We’re excited about getting on the road in a great environment.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

2017 UK football schedule

Home games in capital letters. Times are p.m.

Sept. 2: at Southern Miss (W, 24-17)

Sept. 9: EASTERN KENTUCKY (W, 27-16)

Sept. 16: at South Carolina (W, 23-13)

Sept. 23: FLORIDA, 7:30 (L, 28-27)

Sept. 30: EASTERN MICHIGAN (W, 24-20)

Oct. 7: MISSOURI, 7:30 (SEC)

Oct. 21: at Mississippi St.

Oct. 28: TENNESSEE

Nov. 4: OLE MISS

Nov. 11: at Vanderbilt

Nov. 18: at Georgia

Nov. 25: LOUISVILLE

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