Sidelines with John Clay

Kentucky football has a short-yardage problem

Benny Snell isn’t here anymore.

For Kentucky football, that has become painfully obvious.

As I mentioned in my most recent column, the Cats have struggled in short-yardage situations through the first three games of the 2019 season. In last Saturday’s 29-21 loss to the Florida Gators, Mark Stoops’ team was just 1-for-4 in either third-and-1 or fourth-and-1 situations.

Pivotal was the final play of the third quarter and opening play of the fourth quarter. On the final play of the third quarter, facing a third-and-1 at the Florida 38, A.J. Rose was stopped for no gain. On the first play of the fourth quarter, this time out of the wildcat formation, Rose was again stopped for no gain, turning the ball over the Gators.

A conversion there and Kentucky was in prime position to extend its 21-10 lead to 28-10 or at least 24-10. Instead, Florida took over at the 38 and scored six plays later to chop UK’s lead to 21-16. The rest is unpleasant history.

Again, as pointed out early, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran preached all week that his team had to stay out of third-and-long situations. And one thing that killed his offense Saturday was the inability to make first downs in short-yardage situations.

On the way to a 10-3 record in 2018, Kentucky converted 17 of 22 third-and-1 situations for a 77.3% success rate. So far in 2019, the Cats have converted just four of eight third-and-1 situations for a 50% success rate.

The difference? Benny Snell. Last year, UK ran its junior running back 16 times on third-and-1 and the school’s all-time leading rusher converted 14 of those for a success rate of 87.5%.

This year, Rose has been Gran’s back of choice on third-and-1. He’s run the football five times with three conversions for a success rate of 60%. Quarterback Sawyer Smith is 1-of-2 for 50%. (One was his fumbled snap out of the shotgun.) Kavosiey Smoke is 0-for-1 on third-and-1.

In 2018, Kentucky converted four of seven fourth-and-1 situations for 57.1%. This year, the Cats are 2-for-3 on fourth-and-1 for 66.7%.

One other interesting note: Last season Kentucky threw three passes on third-and-1 and failed to complete any of the three. One was an interception. So when running the football on third-and-1, the Cats were 17-for-19 for an 89.5% success rate.

To review:

Third-and-1

2018: UK was 17-for-22 for 77.3%

2019: UK is 4-for-8 for 50.0%

Fourth-and-1

2018: UK was 4-for-7 for 57.1%

2019: UK is 2-for-3 for 66.7%

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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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