For each question about what’s wrong with Kentucky’s run game there are about a dozen potential answers.
And there are many questions: Is something wrong with Benny Snell? Have defenses figured out the star running back? Is the offensive line having problems? Is the play calling an issue?
Cats coaches and players fielded versions of those questions all week in preparation for No. 11 UK’s game at Tennessee on Saturday.
Maybe the answers will come at Neyland Stadium against the Volunteers (4-5, 1-5 Southeastern Conference), who are 10th in the league in run defense, allowing opponents to rush for 161.1 yards a game and 15 touchdowns.
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Maybe it will be another big day for Snell, who ran for 180 yards and three touchdowns against Tennessee a season ago.
What John Schlarman is confident of is that UK’s offense will find a way to get back to what made it hum at the beginning of the season.
“It’s not a formula we will change,” the Cats’ offensive line coach said. “We’ve run the ball around here and we’ll run it again. I’ve got confidence in those guys.”
So why the worry?
In Kentucky’s first five games of the season, the run game was hot, ranked No. 12 nationally while racking up 1,271 total yards and 16 touchdowns. The Cats were generating 5.8 yards per carry and 254.2 yards a game.
Those numbers have slipped dramatically in the past four games, with UK producing just 525 yards and two touchdowns, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry.
And more than 50 percent of that yardage came in the Vanderbilt game when Kentucky had 280 yards on the ground and a score.
Against strong defensive teams like Texas A&M, Missouri and Georgia, UK has had 70 yards, 91 yards and 84 yards, respectively.
Some of the discrepancy is mathematical. Aside from that Vandy win, the Kentucky offense has run it far fewer times in recent weeks with 35 or fewer attempts against the Aggies, Tigers and Bulldogs. All three of those rushing defenses are among the 35 best in the country.
In the first five games of the season, UK ran an average of 44 times a game.
Playing from behind against a good Georgia run defense was part of the most recent struggle, Coach Mark Stoops noted.
The blame goes around. “It’s a group effort,” Stoops said. “It has something to do with the guys on the other side of the line as well. So I think it’s a combination of all that.”
There’s a bit more math to it if you ask Eddie Gran, the Cats’ offensive coordinator. He notes that UK’s first-down rush efficiency has been down. If Kentucky can get 4-plus yards on first down, it equals good things for the run game.
“We were right at 50 percent this past week and we want to be at 55 percent,” he said. “So we were close. The game dictated we throw it a bit more, but if we can get to that 55 percent mark, then we’ll be better as an offense.”
There’s a bit of human error, too.
“It’s not always the same guy, but you can’t have a play where one guy messes up and the next play where another guy messes up,” Schlarman said of the line, which has struggled with penalties. “You’ve got to have all five working together.”
The offensive line also gave up four sacks last week, but coaches said only one was an error on that group.
Darin Hinshaw, UK’s quarterbacks coach, said Terry Wilson has some things to fix that can help Kentucky get back to its ground-shaking ways to close out the regular season strong.
“There’s a bunch of runs where you see Benny go for 1 yard and it’s because Terry missed a read or Terry didn’t throw a bubble or he had an opportunity to do that,” Hinshaw said of the first-year quarterback. “And that’s where Terry needs to get better, to be able to take what the defense gives us.”
Despite the struggles outlined above, Kentucky (7-2, 5-2) is still among the top rushing teams in the league, sitting at fourth behind Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama this week averaging 199.6 yards a game and 4.8 yards a carry.
The Cats still have Snell, who leads the SEC in rushing at 112 yards a game with 10 scores. Coaches said the bone bruise he suffered last week on his ankle has not slowed him in practice this week.
“He’s a tough guy,” Tennessee Coach Jeremy Pruitt said of Snell, who has run for 1,000 or more yards in each of his three seasons at UK.
“He’s very physical, but he doesn’t take a lot of one-on-one hits. He runs through the soft shoulder, so it’s tough to get him squared up. We’ll have to do a really good job of gang-tackling him.”
Kentucky wants to get its edge back this week. It wants to do it with the run, but balance is important, too.
The Cats would like to find a way to put it all together on offense, but for UK that starts on the ground.
“We’ve got to be able to do both,” Hinshaw said of finding offensive balance. “It’s so important that we run the football successfully because in this league if you do that against a good defense, you have an opportunity to win games. We’ve got to run the football successfully.”
Day of defense?
Mark Stoops doesn’t know new Tennessee Coach Jeremy Pruitt well, “just from crossing paths and just the coaching tree.”
When Stoops left Florida State to take the head coaching job at Kentucky, Pruitt was his replacement as defensive coordinator of the Seminoles.
“I know firsthand what his teams are all about,” Pruitt said this week of Stoops. “They’re going to be very well coached and hard-nosed. He does a fantastic job evaluating talent.”
The admiration is quite mutual. When Stoops looks at the Volunteers this season, he sees a team starting to evolve into a Pruitt team.
“You see his team fighting and playing extremely hard and improving,” Stoops said. “That doesn’t surprise me they’re getting better and better, getting better defensively the second part of the year. You see his characteristics starting to take form and they’re a tough football team, play pretty hard and they’re improving.”
That could mean it will be a day of defense on what is forecast to be a chilly day at Neyland Stadium, where UK will try to earn its first victory in 34 years.
Kentucky and Tennessee are the bottom two teams in the SEC in total offense, with the Volunteers last in the league at 333 yards a game to Kentucky’s 356.3.
They are at the bottom in scoring offense, too, with UK averaging 24.7 points a game and Tennessee at 24.3.
One problem area for the Vols is sure to be running the ball. They are last in the SEC, managing just 127.7 yards a game and 11 touchdowns.
Their 3.4 yards per carry is better than only 14 other teams in the nation. Against conference competition, that number drops to just 2.6 yards per carry, fourth-worst in the country.
‘Make a lot of people proud’
Is it tough to get back up for a game when you just fell in what was the equivalent of a Southeastern Conference division title game last week versus Georgia?
Maybe, but UK’s players and coaches seemed to think getting back to work was the cure for what could be quite a hangover heading into Tennessee.
“What we lost was pretty significant obviously, but there’s so many things to pick up on and strive for that can turn this program around and make a lot of people proud for many years to come,” middle linebacker Kash Daniel said.
After losing that Georgia game, the players sat back and made lists of all the things they have to play for still and it was significant, the junior said.
“We have a chance to have a team that has a 10-win season, which has only been done here twice in school history,” Daniel said. “We have a chance to win six SEC games, which has only been done here once or twice in school history.”
A victory over the Volunteers would complete the Cats’ league schedule at 6-2, the best league record since 1977 and be just the second time in school history that UK won six SEC games.
It would be the first time since 1977 that a UK team has beaten Florida and Tennessee in the same season.