Mark Story

What if Eddie Gran has been right about the UK offense all along?

Eddie Gran says he has been in a feedback blackout.

As Kentucky’s offense has thrown a rod in recent weeks, the veteran UK offensive coordinator has become a lightning rod for criticism from a frustrated fan base.

“I don’t read it, I don’t listen to it, it’s just part of the game,” Gran said. “Coming into (Kroger Field) I’ve got people yelling at me ‘Run the ball more.’ And I’ve got people yelling at me, telling me I need to throw the ball more. And that’s the only thing I hear.”

For the first time since 1984, Kentucky (8-3, 5-3 SEC) won an eighth game in a regular season with a 34-23 victory Saturday over plucky Middle Tennessee (7-4, 6-1 Conference USA) at Kroger Field before a disappointing Senior Day crowd announced at 47,535.

No. 17 UK owed its barrier-shattering win to two factors.

1.) Difference-making performances from senior defensive stars Josh Allen (15 tackles, two crucial quarterback sacks) and Mike Edwards (12 tackles, a 66-yard pick-six touchdown, a forced fumble that set up a second TD).

2.) Gran’s offense getting its running game restarted. Led by junior star Benny Snell (116 yards rushing, two touchdowns), UK won the rushing battle 203-99.

“You’re going to win football games when you do that,” Wildcats Coach Mark Stoops said.

Aided by Edwards’ defensive TD, the 31 points UK put on the scoreboard Saturday represented the first time Kentucky has gone above the 20-point threshold since hanging 24 on South Carolina in the first half Sept. 29.

The 202 yards rushing for the Cats vs. MTSU was only the second time in the past six games that Kentucky has run for as many as 100 yards as a team.

When one is putting up those kind of anemic offensive numbers, the coach in charge of the offense is going to catch flak.

“People are passionate about the game,” Gran said. “So it’s what I signed up for. I’m not going to make everybody happy.”

This is not going to make a lot of people happy but, for all the criticism that has fallen on Gran for Kentucky’s offensive ineffectiveness in recent weeks, UK’s overall approach to trying to move the football this year has been the correct one.

The whole point of coaching is to play the way that best suits your team’s personnel.

Kentucky entered this season with a punishing, move-the-pile runner in Snell. It had an experienced offensive line that is much better at run blocking than in pass protection. In C.J. Conrad, UK also returned a tight end whose physicality makes him an unusually effective blocker.

What the Cats did not enter 2018 with was a quarterback who had ever thrown a pass in a Football Bowl Subdivision game nor even one outside receiver who had shown the explosiveness to “take the top off a defense.”

Given that reality, it would have been coaching malpractice for Gran and Kentucky not to feature a ground-and-pound offense this season.

Rather than complaining about the philosophy that has (mostly) guided the Kentucky offense in 2018, the better question is why the approach was so effective from the Florida game (303 rushing yards) through the first half vs. South Carolina (24 points in half one) but has struggled so since the second half against the Gamecocks.

“I think it’s been a couple of things,” UK’s Conrad said. “We’ve been hurting ourselves a lot. I know that sounds cliche, but when you watch film, it’s so true. A guy here, a guy there, a block here, a catch there, can make such a big difference.

“Early in the season, we were doing all those things really, really well. Then we went through a four-, five-game stretch when it felt like we couldn’t get out from underneath ourselves.”

Going forward into next year, Kentucky needs to diversify its offense. That should happen naturally. Snell is likely to enter the 2019 NFL Draft.

UK sophomore quarterback Terry Wilson will have a year of starting experience when 2019 starts.

Sophomore slot receiver Lynn Bowden has become a standout in 2018. Kentucky has a verbal commitment from a player of a similarly explosive profile to Bowden in Western Hills play-maker Wandale Robinson for next season.

For all the criticism directed at Gran in recent weeks, the way Kentucky has tried to play offensively in 2018 has given the current Cats their best chance to succeed.

It just hasn’t worked in the second half of the season like it did in the first.

When a coach finds himself in the cross-hairs of public criticism, I always wonder if it’s hard to “tune out the noise.”

“Oh no,” Eddie Gran says. “When you don’t tune it out, that’s when you are in trouble.”

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory

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