UK Football

After ground swell, do Kentucky coaches have more up their sleeves this week?

Benny Snell: Last week, that wasn’t us

Kentucky running back Benny Snell talks about bouncing back from last week’s drubbing at Mississippi State to beat Tennessee 29-26. Snell rushed for 180 yards on 27 carries.
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Kentucky running back Benny Snell talks about bouncing back from last week’s drubbing at Mississippi State to beat Tennessee 29-26. Snell rushed for 180 yards on 27 carries.

After coming just a few yards shy of his career-best rushing total and scoring three touchdowns on Saturday, Benny Snell nodded when asked whether Kentucky had found its identity again.

“Everything’s starting to come together just like I thought it would,” he said with a wide smile.

But it wasn’t quite as simple as all of the dominoes falling after the first one got nudged.

“Everybody just thinks it’s brawn and running the ball and being physical, and that’s a big part of it,” Coach Mark Stoops said this week of Kentucky’s season-high 289 rushing yards and four touchdowns against Tennessee.

Adding later: “I don’t think people completely understand the bind that we put them in and how off balance we had Tennessee this past week in the run game.”

Going into the game, UK was averaging just 135 yards per game and just 3.7 yards per carry.

On Saturday night at Kroger Field, that number ballooned to 289 yards and eight yards per carry.

Quarterback Stephen Johnson made the correct decision on 100 percent of Kentucky’s zone-read plays. In the zone read, he would pull the ball or distribute it to Snell — several times on pitch plays. On his radio show Monday night, Stoops likened the plays to misdirections. When defensive ends would crash, it allowed for Johnson to get free.

Snell was a fan of those pitch plays, which regularly went for first downs on Saturday.

“They put a lot of people in the box, so we’ve got to attack the outside,” the sophomore running back said. “So those outside plays we (were) hitting for 15, 10 yards every time. That’s the great thing we’ve also added.”

It made Kentucky’s run game “very, very efficient,” its head coach said.

“I can appreciate it as a defensive coach the way we were running the ball and the things they were doing to combat the plays, Eddie (Gran) had counters off of that,” Stoops said. “It made it very, very difficult for their defense.”

Some of those were plays UK had run previously, but in different formations. The Cats’ offensive coaches got together looking for creative ways to get more yards.

“We’ve used some unique formations to spread the defense out, force them to fit our runs a lot different,” co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw explained. “Again, we see how they fit it and we call different plays off that.”

But every coach noted that none of those plays — none of those alterations to the playbook — would have been so effective without strong play from the offensive linemen, tight ends and others.

The Cats’ offensive line, which has been struggling with continuity this season, didn’t give up a sack for the first time this season.

It got especially stout play from center Drake Jackson and guards Logan Stenberg and Bunchy Stallings, who played every snap against the Volunteers.

Stallings had 12 knockdowns and his “footwork was incredible,” said Gran, the co-offensive coordinator.

Behind those guys and sometimes formations with two and three tight ends, Snell had his best game of the year.

Kentucky’s run success was a combination of all involved.

“That’s the whole key: Our O-line did a fantastic job and this was their best game and they came off the ball and it was really fun to watch them be able to control the defensive line,” Hinshaw said.

“They did a good job, and then of course Stephen making really good decisions and Benny running really hard. It was a whole group effort, everybody working hard in the run game, and we have to do that every week.”

The Cats (6-2, 3-2 SEC) have a chance to build on that ground swell when they face Ole Miss on Saturday.

There are only three teams in the nation worse than the Rebels at defending the run. Mississippi (3-5, 1-4) is allowing 260.5 yards per game and 5.7 per carry.

The numbers get worse against SEC foes: 306.4 per game and 6.2 per carry.

Don’t be surprised to see more changes of pace and formation from Kentucky’s offense this week.

“Just keeps the defense on their toes,” Snell said. “It just feels like we’ve got so much up our sleeves that guys aren’t ready for.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Saturday

Mississippi at Kentucky

4 p.m. (SEC)

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