John Clay

Has Kentucky football found its secret sauce?

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson hands off to running back Benny Snell, Jr. during the fourth quarter of UK’s 17-10 win over South Carolina at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016.
Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson hands off to running back Benny Snell, Jr. during the fourth quarter of UK’s 17-10 win over South Carolina at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. Lexington Herald-Leader

John Calipari is not a coach who weds himself to a style of play. The Kentucky basketball coach doesn’t have a set-in-stone system. He judges his talent. He experiments. He sees what works and what doesn’t. Then he settles on what he believes is the best way for that particular team on that particular year to play.

“We’re still trying to figure it out,” is the typical Calipari early-season motto.

You wonder if during its 17-10 win over South Carolina on Saturday night, this Kentucky football team didn’t figure some things out, at least a little bit.

First, a definitive disclaimer. Make no mistake, Mark Stoops’ Cats face a steep, steep climb Saturday in Tuscaloosa against No. 1-ranked Alabama. Nick Saban is the best coach in college football. The Crimson Tide boast the best overall talent in college football. So far, in sprinting to a 4-0 record, Bama has shown little drop-off from the team that won the national title last season.

At least, however, Kentucky packs a 2-2 overall record and 1-1 SEC mark for the trip. That appeared very much in doubt after the 45-7 egg the Cats laid at Florida, just a week after blowing a 25-point lead in the season-opening 44-35 loss to Southern Miss.

Defense has been the No. 1 issue. UK gave up 500-plus yards and 40-plus points in each of its first three games, causing Stoops to take over the game calls and ESPN College GameDay showman Lee Corso to declare UK possessed “maybe the worst defense in the history of football.”

Alabama rolls Kent State; loses Damien Harris to injury

Saturday night, however, the defense got a little help from its friends. The UK offense won the time of possession battle, keeping the football for 32:40 compared to 27:20 for the Gamecocks. It ran 69 plays compared to 65 for South Carolina. It produced a 12-play drive in the first half, an 11-play drive in the second. It owned the ball for 10:41 of the 15 minutes in the final quarter.

Early on, especially in the opener, new coordinator Eddie Gran appeared keen on a big-play offense. In the first quarter alone, quarterback Drew Barker completed passes of 33, 43 and 72 yards. The next week at Florida, second possession, Gran called a deep sideline pass from Barker to Jeff Badet that was picked off by the Gators. Florida scored the next play and the rout was on.

Barker is no longer the quarterback, a back injury having sidelined the sophomore. Stephen Johnson, whose running ability prompted many to predict he would be used in special packages, is now the quarterback. True freshman Benny Snell, with his crowd-pleasing straight-ahead style, has emerged as a compliment to the slashing Boom Williams.

At least Saturday, Gran adjusted his scheme to fit his talent. Kentucky ran the football 50 times. It threw it 19. The 72/28 run/pass ratio was the highest by a Kentucky team against a FBS team since the famous Matt Roark Game, the win over Tennessee on Nov. 26, 2011. With Roark, a wide receiver, playing quarterback, Kentucky ran the ball 60 times while throwing it just four. UK won 10-7 that day, the Cats’ first over the Vols since 1984.

Obviously, such ball control helps a struggling defense. Saturday, it kept Stoops’ troops off the field for large periods of time. And the defense responded. True, South Carolina entered Saturday with the second-worst offense in the SEC. Still, Kentucky’s defense was more aggressive, energetic and successful than at any previous point in the young season.

This isn’t to say UK has found its secret sauce. The new formula, if that’s what it is, isn’t likely to make much of a dent at Alabama, where the Crimson Tide will be prohibitive favorites.

And yet, at least Kentucky experienced some success Saturday. It controlled the ball on offense. It ran to the ball on defense. It looked like an improved football team. Maybe, just maybe, it figured out the best way for it to play.

A smashmouth offense

Games last 10 years Kentucky ran the ball at least 70 percent of the time

Date

Opponent

Runs

Passes

Ratio

Result

11/8/08

Georgia

56

20

0.737

Lost 42-38

11/29/08

@Tennessee

38

14

0.731

Lost 28-10

10/31/09

Miss St

48

19

0.716

Lost 31-24

11/14/09

@Vanderbilt

58

15

0.795

Won 24-13

11/21/09

@Georgia

41

17

0.707

Won 34-27

10/22/11

Jax State

55

16

0.775

Won 38-14

11/26/11

Tennessee

56

6

0.903

Won 10-7

11/17/12

Samford

60

19

0.759

Won 34-3

9/10/16

@Florida

34

14

0.708

Lost 45-7

9/24/16

South Carolina

50

19

0.725

Won 17-10

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