What challenges will Murray State present UK on Saturday?
Maybe Kentucky fans are already looking ahead to the next two games at Kroger Field, but the Cats’ coaches and players assure that their undivided attention has been on Murray State this week.
“We’ve been practicing like we’re playing one of the top teams in the country and we’ve just got to keep that up,” senior defender Josh Allen said this week as UK tries to leave behind its first victory over Florida since 1986, ending a 31-game losing streak to the Gators.
Because of players like Allen and other leaders like running back Benny Snell, tight end C.J. Conrad, safety Mike Edwards, linebacker Kash Daniel and others, Coach Mark Stoops has zero worries about a letdown game on Saturday.
“I really love this group and the way they handle things and I expect them to handle it that way,” Stoops said. “Going back to worrying about us and creating our own standards and living up to them.”
That starts with the coaches’ favorite “C” word. Consistency.
“You’ve gotta be able to come back out here now and turn all that off,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “People will be slapping you on your back telling you you did a great job. We’ve got a game this week. This game is about us. That’s just being consistent and continuing to get better.”
As well as the Cats played in that victory in Gainesville, there were plenty of issues on both sides of the ball to hold the players’ attention.
“The great thing is we can play a lot cleaner,” defensive coordinator Matt House said. “That’s encouraging.”
So in what places does Kentucky (2-0) need to make a leap this week against Murray State (0-2) to help prepare the Cats for future upcoming opponents like No. 16 Mississippi State and South Carolina?
For the offense, it starts with turnovers. And of UK’s six miscues this season, five were by new quarterback Terry Wilson.
“That has to be stopped,” said co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw of Wilson’s turnovers, including two against Florida in the first half. “Offensively, we don’t want to beat ourselves.”
Kentucky coaches want Wilson to play loose and without fear, but they also want him to not make bad decisions.
“You want him confident and making throws and things of that nature, but securing the football,” Stoops said. “Fumbles is something we cannot tolerate, won’t tolerate. Have to continue to harp on that and get better.”
On Wilson’s fumble, he had it secured pretty well, but took a direct helmet hit, which knocked it loose.
The interception needs to get cleaned up, Hinshaw said, noting that the QB needed to throw it higher and more toward the back of the end zone so that the only one who could catch it was the wide receiver.
There were a few other decision-making things that coaches would like to get cleaned up, too. Wilson could have pulled the ball and ran it a couple more times, which would’ve been big gains for the Cats, Hinshaw said.
“But it’s a learning curve,” Hinshaw added. “It’s a hard thing to do, to put all those RPO decisions on the quarterback. The more we do it, the more we’ll get better at it.”
And what about on the other side of the ball? What is Kentucky focused on improving this week?
Probably things you won’t notice right away.
“Just the details: There’s several details, whether it be a blitz path, a coverage, a football position,” said House, who noted that Cats being out of position just slightly in the third and fourth quarters led to big gains for the Gators.
Statistically, UK needs to improve on third-down plays, right now sitting at No. 13 in the league with opponents converting 41.9 percent of the time. Kentucky has forced only two turnovers, both in the Florida game, and would like to see that number go up this week.
A tip, then a strip among Allen’s big plays
Josh Allen does so many of the little things right.
Some of those little things might have gotten lost against Florida because they happened near the end of the historic win over the Gators.
On the final play of the game, Allen was able to come up behind Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks and strip the ball, which led to a scoop and score by UK safety Davonte Robinson as time expired.
On the Gators’ drive before that, Allen’s acrobatic tip of a ball headed for the corner on a two-point conversion was key as well.
“He was looking for it, had instincts, just picked it up and made a nice play on it,” Coach Mark Stoops said of the two-point conversion denial that helped UK hold the Gators to 16 total points.
But none of that is a surprise to Stoops.
“He’s playing really good football across the board,” the coach said of Allen, who opted to come back for his senior season after pondering a leap to the NFL Draft.
“Even things that go unnoticed. He’s just playing the game the right way and he’s been doing his job and playing within the framework of the defense and in predictable pass, he’s gotten great pressure. Just doing a lot of things good.”
The preseason All-Southeastern Conference pick has 15 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks and a forced fumble in two games so far this season despite teams game planning away from him on the field.
‘The key to the whole game’
UK’s third-down conversion rate is seventh nationally and among the best in the Southeastern Conference. It’s quite a leap from a season ago when UK was No. 72 nationally, converting on just 39.3 percent of its third-down attempts.
While that leaps off the stat sheet, it’s more about the stat within the stat, Kentucky’s offensive coaches said.
“First down efficiency,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “We were phenomenal on first-down efficiency, that’s the key to the whole to the game, in my opinion.”
Just how phenomenal was UK on first down versus Florida on Saturday? The Cats averaged 7.9 yards on first-down plays. If UK’s offense can get four or more yards on one of those plays, then Gran calls it a success.
That means UK was successful 53.8 percent of the time against the Gators and has been successful 55 percent of the time through two games.
Solid first-down efficiency coupled with the explosive plays every five plays like the Cats had in Gainesville could make for a special offense this season, their coordinator said.
How did Kentucky get so much more efficient on first down?
“Did you see the line of scrimmage?” Gran asked the media crowded around him on Tuesday.
It also helps to have a running back like Benny Snell.
“He’s tough and he gets you hard yards and when there’s nothing there, he gets you yards,” Gran said. “That’s how you become efficient.”
Some timely quarterback runs from Terry Wilson haven’t hurt either, co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said.
“We’ve kind of condensed the offense and used some different eye candy for the defense,” he explained of UK’s success on first down this season. “And keeping them a little bit off balance with a couple shifts, a couple motions, a couple this and our offense is still doing the same plays.”
Kentucky still has a ways to go on first-down passing plays, though, connecting on just 47.4 percent of them, which is last in the league.
But on third down, UK has connected on nine of its 13 tries (69.2 percent) when it’s thrown the ball, including a pretty, 54-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Lynn Bowden last weekend.
The Cats haven’t exactly been awful on third-down run plays, either, averaging 7.9 yards per run on that down.