John Clay

Eddie Gran needs to get Kentucky’s offense going, and he knows it

Eddie Gran has been around football a long time, long enough to know he’s on the spot.

“I went back to the Florida game, I watched that one. I watched the first game, I watched the second game, I watched them all,” Kentucky football’s offensive coordinator said Tuesday of how he spent UK’s off week. “Because, you know, I’m looking for answers.”

Answers to why his offense isn’t working, because it’s not. The 2-3 Cats rank 87th nationally in total offense. They are 98th in scoring offense. Their 24-7 loss at South Carolina last time out was, in Gran’s words, one of the worst performances in which he has been involved.

“(The players) were embarrassed,” the coach said Tuesday. “I was embarrassed.”

UK gained 212 yards, fourth-lowest since Gran’s 2016 arrival. It averaged 3.42 yards per play, fewest since 2.78 at Alabama in 2016. Alabama later played for the national championship. South Carolina won’t be playing for the national championship.

Playing a beat-up quarterback didn’t help. Despite shoulder and wrist injuries, Sawyer Smith gutted out nearly four full quarters in Columbia. He was ineffective, however, and didn’t get much help. So during the postgame, Gran said that over the off week he needed to figure out just what this offense can do.

“I think we’re quickly getting that answer,” Gran said Tuesday. No details, of course. No sense tipping off Arkansas, Saturday’s opponent. “Each night we’ve gone in there and that’s what we’ve talked about. ‘These are the things that we’ve got to take out. And this is what we’re good at, let’s run this.’ We’re gaining on it. And we need to be right at the tipping point Saturday at 7:30.”

I’m not a Gran basher. Yes, the Cats ranked 103rd in total offense in 2017, 104th in 2018. And I’m a numbers guy. But numbers aren’t everything. Except one. UK is 26-18 since Mark Stoops coaxed Gran away from Cincinnati.

Still, there have been puzzlers. Stoops prefers a strong defense and an effective running game. That’s how UK won 10 games a year ago. But this year, for whatever reason, the Cats have been knocked off that path.

They threw 42 passes in the 28-13 loss at Mississippi State, a number Stoops expressed displeasure with afterward. Then UK followed that with 34 passes at South Carolina. It’d be one thing if the Cats were successful throwing the ball. But they were not, completing a combined 28 of 76 throws (36.8 percent) with no touchdowns and two interceptions.

True, sensing Smith was wounded, South Carolina overplayed the run. But teams did that last season and UK still imposed its will. This year, at South Carolina, UK got the ball to start the second half, down 10-0. And Gran called three straight pass plays. The first two went nowhere. On third down, Smith lost a fumble while being sacked.

“You’ve got to be patient,” said Gran of the run game. “I got a little impatient.”

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A stat: Since Gran’s arrival, Kentucky is 25-13 when it runs the football at least 50 percent of its plays. The Cats are 1-5 when they throw it more than 50 percent of the time.

To be fair, Benny Snell is gone. So too is Terry Wilson, the team’s starting quarterback, lost for the year because of a knee injury. But building blocks do exist. Lynn Bowden is one of the SEC’s more dynamic players. The offensive line, along with the defensive line, was expected to be a team strength.

“We have higher expectations on both groups,” said Stoops on Monday.

To meet the expectation of a fourth straight bowl game, things on offense have to get straightened out.

To snap this three-game losing streak, UK’s offense has to get pointed back in the right direction. We know it. They know it. Eddie Gran certainly knows it.

“You can’t look back in that rear-view mirror, it’s really small,” Gran said Tuesday. “That front windshield is large and you’ve got to move forward. . . . I’m excited about Saturday night.”

Saturday

Arkansas at Kentucky

7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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