Sidelines with John Clay

Kentucky’s ground game a no-go; plus two more things from TaxSlayer Bowl loss

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson was tackled by Georgia Tech linebacker P.J. Davis (40) left and defensive back Lance Austin (17) right as he fell short of a first down in the second half of the Kentucky’s loss in the TaxSlayer Bowl at Everbank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., on Dec. 31, 2016.
Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson was tackled by Georgia Tech linebacker P.J. Davis (40) left and defensive back Lance Austin (17) right as he fell short of a first down in the second half of the Kentucky’s loss in the TaxSlayer Bowl at Everbank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., on Dec. 31, 2016. Lexington Herald-Leader

In addition to my column, three more things from Kentucky’s TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Georgia Tech.

1. Kentucky couldn’t dance with what brought it this far

The offensive recipe behind the Cats turnaround from an 0-2 start to a bowl bid had revolved around the running game. With the explosiveness of Boom Williams, the experience of Jojo Kemp and the emergence of freshman grinder Benny Snell, coordinator Eddie Gran had tailored a game plan that used the ground game to gain yardage and keep the Kentucky defense off the field.

That never materialized Saturday against the Yellow Jackets. Kentucky rushed for just 149 yards, its lowest total since gaining 72 yards on the ground in the 34-6 loss to No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 1. Kentucky’s 36 rushing attempts were its fewest since the 36 against the Crimson Tide.

Before announcing that he was giving up his senior season to enter the NFL draft, Williams was held to just 35 yards on 11 carries, his lowest rushing total since gaining just 22 yards on nine carries against -- guess who -- Alabama. Williams’ longest run Saturday was nine yards.

Snell gained just 34 yards on seven carries. That was a season-low for the rookie from Youngstown, who gained over 1,000 yards on the season, as did Williams. Snell’s longest run Saturday was 10 yards.

Not surprisingly, Kentucky gained just 324 yards of total offense, its lowest total since gaining 308 in the 27-24 loss to Georgia on Nov. 5.

Stat: Kentucky has lost 25 of its last 26 games in which it gains less than 350 yards. The one win was this year over Vanderbilt.

2. Kentucky’s defense wasn’t all that bad

On the flip side, the Kentucky defense gave up just two touchdowns to the Paul Johnson’s flexbone spread option offene. Tech scored one defensive touchdown on a 38-yard scoop-and-score in the first quarter. The Jackets also got four field goals from senior Harrison Butker.

On the day, Georgia Tech gained 371 yards, including 266 on the ground. Kentucky came into the game ranked 107th in rushing defense, allowing 225 yards per game. So Johnson’s attack was slightly above that average. The total yardage figure was actually below UK’s average allowed of 439.5 and below Georgia Tech’s average of 388.6. The Jackets came into the game ranked 84th in total offense.

UK entered the game ranked 106th in turnover margin and the Cats lived up to that, turning it over once and failing to pry Georgia Tech from the ball. The Yellow Jackets put it on the ground twice, but managed to recover each fumble. It was that kind of day for Kentucky.

3. A tale of two fourth downs

If you wanted to break the game down to a set of series, you’d have to say the successive series happened in the second quarter, each revolving around a crucial fourth down.

With 9:59 to play in the first half, down 10-3, Kentucky started a drive from its own 28 and marched to the a first down at the Tech 14-yard line. Quarterback Stephen Johnson was stopped after a one-yard gain. Kemp picked up four yards on second down. On third-and-five, Johnson gained four, setting up a fourth-and-one from the five. Stoops chose to go for it, but Kemp was stopped for a one-yard gain.

I thought it was the right call. It’s a bowl game. You’ve got little to lose. Where Kentucky erred was trying to run a quick play -- offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said later he wanted to keep Georgia Tech from substituting -- and perhaps UK wasn’t quite prepared for the snap. Tech was prepared. UK turned it over on downs.

So with 5:18 to play in the half, Georgia Tech started a drive from its own six. Three plays later, Johnson faced a fourth-and-one from his own 15. The Georgia Tech coached rolled the dice and succeeded. Dedrick Mills gained three yards for the first down.

Sparked by the conversion, Georgia Tech marched right down the field for a touchdown. Quarterback Justin Thomas completed the 11-play drive with a 21-yard score off a draw play. Suddenly, the Jackets were ahead 17-3 with just 49 seconds left in the first half. It was a crucial swing.

Kentucky football 2016

Date

Opponent

UK

Opp

Dec

Rec

SEC

9/3/16

Southern Miss

35

44

L

0-1

9/10/16

@Florida

7

45

L

0-2

0-1

9/17/16

New Mexico St

62

42

W

1-2

9/24/16

South Carolina

17

10

W

2-2

1-1

10/1/16

@Alabama

6

34

L

2-3

1-2

10/8/16

Vanderbilt

20

13

W

3-3

2-2

10/22/16

Mississippi St

40

38

W

4-3

3-2

10/29/16

@Missouri

35

21

W

5-3

4-2

11/5/16

Georgia

24

27

L

5-4

4-3

11/12/16

@Tennessee

36

49

L

5-5

4-4

11/19/16

Austin Peay

49

13

W

6-5

11/26/16

@Louisville

41

38

W

7-5

12/31/16

vsGeorgia Tech

18

33

L

7-6

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