UK Football

For youthful Kentucky offense, first play of each drive is critical

There's the old saying about a journey of a thousand miles beginning with the first step.

It's sort of the way Neal Brown has had to manage his youthful Kentucky offense this season.

Yes, all offensive coordinators would like to start a drive with a big play on first down, but for the Cats, it's critical.

If Kentucky can get that initial first down, "chances are we'll do pretty well," Brown said.

And if the Cats could just get going, he felt like they could move the ball against Mississippi State.

"When we did get started, we did move the ball. And when we didn't, we didn't, because we got behind the chains and we struggle when we get behind the chains."

The coaches became keenly aware of that at Louisiana State the week before when Kentucky managed to move the ball more than five yards on the opening play of a drive just twice in 12 drives.

Before the game against LSU, Kentucky had done fairly well on first down, moving the ball five yards or more 48.6 percent of the time.

So last week Brown went back to the basics and focused on ways to get the Cats off to a good first step on each drive.

"I think that's something that Neal has done an excellent job when our offense is moving the ball, having some drive starters and getting some things to get us it going," Coach Mark Stoops said.

"When we get going, get our tempo going and get a good rhythm about us, we play extremely well. If we're in predictable situations, not so well."

Brown said about 30 percent of the plays in UK's play book are used as drive starters and the offense has been working on those more in practice, especially last week after the issues at LSU.

Kentucky has been fairly balanced this season in whether it runs or throws to open a drive with 52 runs (including a handful of sacks) and 49 pass plays.

But one key drive starter has emerged as of late: the quarterback run.

Getting hit early seems to Patrick Towles get going, Brown said. And when Towles gets going, the rest of the offense usually follows suit.

"Hopefully it's by design on a run, not on a pressure," he said of Towles taking a hit. "When he has success early in games and when he does get in the flow, whether running or pass, high-percentage pass."

Only once in the first five games did Towles run for one of those 5-plus yard drive starters.

In the last three games, the sophomore was responsible for five of them, including a career-best 48-yard run that opened one scoring drive against the Bulldogs (maybe not coincidentally it ended in a 10-yard Towles touchdown run).

Six of Kentucky's 15 drive starters against Mississippi State were Towles runs. And of those drive-opening plays, he got runs of 5 or more yards three times.

Only once did a drive that started with Towles rushing for five or more yards not end with points on the board for Kentucky.

"I kind of like it," Towles said of designed quarterback runs to open drives. "Lets me get in the rhythm of the game more if I get hit. It's always good — if we get a first down, we can start using our tempo.

"Because you can't tempo if you don't make first downs. So yeah, I don't mind it."

He also tries not to mind the beating his body takes after a game where he runs the ball 15-plus times and is sacked seven times, like the latest one against the Bulldogs.

"It's just something that comes with it," he said as Kentucky prepares to go to Missouri. "It's gotten less and less. The Tennessee-Martin game was the first time I'd gotten hit in like a year and a half, kind of felt it the day after that one, but I'm getting used to it. It's not that bad."

The Sundays after game days have been something he's had to get used to again. There hasn't been one thing hurting, just lots of soreness in general.

"It's a lot better when everything hurts a little bit than one thing hurts a lot," he smiled. "Everything's been hurting a little bit recently, but I'm good now."