The University of Kentucky football is trying to solve its offensive woes before Saturday's pivotal Southeastern Conference game with South Carolina.
Derrick Locke gave his two cents' worth on the Wildcats' problems.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound sophomore said Monday that the offense hasn't made enough of a commitment to the running game. The suggestion comes on the heels of UK's 17-14 loss to Alabama in which the Cats ran the ball just 20 times for 35 yards.
"Honestly I feel like we're relying too much on the passing game," Locke said. "I don't know if it's Coach not trusting us with the run game. I really don't know, but I feel like the running backs need some more touches. They keep saying we've got to establish the run game. Well, we're really not running. We haven't had a running back that had over 100 yards rushing (in a game) yet. You can't get that with six carries, four carries, three carries. You just can't make it happen.
"You've got to let your running back get in the groove. You want to establish a rushing game, a run game, you've got to hand us the ball. You've got to hand us the ball. We can't just pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass and then all of the sudden run three or four times, run five times and have your running back get six carries. The rushing game is not going to get established that way."
After a slow start, the UK passing game heated up in the second half. Quarterback Mike Hartline went 20-for-42 for 241 yards with two second-half TD passes. But Locke said the offense needs to be more balanced.
"We had 42 pass attempts," Locke said. "I'm not trying to doubt the quarterback or the wide receivers. Obviously they made some things happen. But I feel like when you're playing a good team like that, you've got to pound the ball. You've got to get those yards. You've got to make them respect the run. We haven't done that yet. We haven't made a team respect the run."
UK Coach Rich Brooks said several factors have contributed to his team's struggles on the ground. He cited the new clock rules that have cut down on the number of overall plays. Also, the Cats dug themselves an early hole against Alabama and had to throw to try to get back in the game.
"We had 62 snaps. We were behind 14-0 (in the first quarter)," Brooks said. "There's not a lot of chances. When you run and get no gain or two yards, do you run and get two yards and two yards and then punt, or do you try to throw?"
Brooks did say that he'd like the pass/run ratio to be closer to 50-50. He also pointed out that UK isn't getting much run production from the quarterback spot, and he said a consistent passing game would open up things for the run.
"I felt like we'd run it better, and some of that was predicated on the fact that I thought our quarterback would be a factor in the run game," he said. "That really hasn't transpired, and we really have not thrown the ball well enough to keep the heat off as far as numbers in the box. People have been packing it in on us."
Kentucky's rushing numbers aren't terrible; their 142.6 yards per game ranks ninth in the SEC and isn't too far off last year's pace of 155.5. But that average is skewed by big performances against Division I-AA Norfolk State (297 yards) and Western Kentucky (216). In its two games against BCS opponents, the ground game has gone nowhere. In addition to the struggles against Alabama, UK picked up just 63 yards on 33 carries against Louisville.
Locke and Smith both have decent yard-per-carry averages, with Locke at 5.6 and Smith at 5.5 But Locke has only had 39 carries in five games with Smith getting 31. Starter Tony Dixon has carried 45 times for 139 yards (2.8).
"With the ball in my hands, I feel like I can make stuff happen, just like Alfonso and Tony," Locke said. "I feel like we can make things happen. But we've got to get the ball. We've got to have the ball in our hands."
While Locke only had six carries for 28 yards against Alabama, he was a factor in the passing game with eight catches for 81 yards. Locke said that he's fine with splitting out wide on occasion but that the focus must remain on the run.
"Being able to get the ball in my hands (on pass plays), of course I'm happy with that. But we've still got to have a run game. You can't win in the SEC without a run game."
This doesn't seem like the ideal week for UK to get the ground game going, as South Carolina is sixth in the nation in total defense (244.7). Also, the Wildcats are in a state of flux on the offensive line. Right tackle Justin Jeffries continues to be out with a knee injury, and both of the regulars at right guard are nursing knee injuries. Stuart Hines is out indefinitely with torn cartilage, and starter Jess Beets is expected to be out. Sophomore Brad Durham will replace Billy Joe Murphy at right tackle, with Murphy possibly moving inside to help at right guard. Marcus Davis, Jake Lanefski and Mike Williams will also have to get ready to play.
"Out of that combination, we'll find somebody we feel good about in three days," Brooks said. "With all the different rotations in the offensive line, it's really affected continuity."
However the line shakes out, it will have to face a South Carolina defense that will present several different looks. Brooks said the Gamecocks may line up in a 4-3 alignment, a 4-4 set or a five-man front. They also frequently move lineman Eric Norwood from tackle to end and shift their linebackers.
"It will be a challenge for our offense to make sure that we are correct assignment-wise,"Brooks said, "much less winning some physical battles."
Brooks said that receiver DeMoreo Ford and weak-side linebacker Michael Schwindel are both doubtful for Saturday with shoulder injuries. Schwindel had moved into the starting lineup after Micah Johnson's high-ankle sprain forced Braxton Kelley to move from the weak side to the middle. Brooks said that junior Sam Maxwell would probably start on the weak side if Schwindel can't go, and that would mean extended action for freshman Danny Trevathan as a reserve . Brooks listed Johnson as questionable.
Brooks expects UK's other two players nursing high-ankle sprains — receiver/quarterback Randall Cobb and defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin — to play, although they won't be 100 percent.