Mark Stoops took over the struggling Kentucky program after back-to-back lackluster performances from Joker Phillips and his staff. Stoops immediately excited the fanbase by hiring Offensive "young gun" Neal Brown. Brown brought back the "Air Raid" attack that former coach Hal Mumme created years ago. His hires, along with his immediate recruiting success, seemingly reenergized the fan base this offseason. However, Bobby Pertrino's Western Kentucky squad took the wind out of the sails a bit with an eleven point win two weeks ago. Kentucky is hoping that it can look more like it did last week against Miami of Ohio, which it beat 41-7.
First and foremost, the "Air Raid" offense UK has implemented is much closer to a spread offense than it is to the attack we saw back when Tim Couch was slinging the ball around. Kentucky doesn't have the depth or talent at certain positions to be able to do some of the things Offensive Coordinator Neal Brown wants to do. But, Brown deserves a lot of credit. He's taken what he has and made it work pretty well. Putting your best players in space and letting them create plays sounds pretty easy, but when you only have a couple of guys that can do that, its not so simple. Brown has still utilized formations and motion to create confusion for defenses and it has paid dividends. UK had eight plays for more than 20 yards this past week and a few of them had players running freely down the field. Controlled chaos is how I describe high tempo offenses. That's what they always look like to me. Brown's offense looked the part at the beginning of the Miami of Ohio game. His concern has to be that the team could convert back to just chaos like it did against Western.
Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow were both utilized last week against the Redhawks. The offense drastically changes with Smith in the game because he can't run the read option like Whitlow. I honestly expect to see a lot more Whitlow this week than most do. Whitlow has been very good in the short passing game and he can flat out fly. Louisville hasn't handled the read option very well in the past and every coordinator on the schedule knows that. Smith has better numbers. That's obvious. But he took two more snaps than Whitlow this past week and he was a wide open receiver away from the offense having a pretty even day than with Whitlow at the helm.
Smith is a better passer but he limits the offense in my opinion. Why not go with the guy that can help you keep Teddy off the field? We will have to wait and see how Brown goes about splitting their time, but his offense looked its best when he played both guys on the same possession. Brown will more than likely stick with this attack because it would keep the defense on its heels. Vance Bedford loves to stay aggressive, but it is somewhat hard to do when you don't know which quarterback will be behind center from one play to the next.
UK has three capable backs like Louisville. Raymond Sanders is the starter and the most complete back in the offense while Jonathan George and Jojo Kemp provide a "Thunder and Lightning" factor. Sanders has broken a few big runs so far this season and honestly looks much quicker than he did last year. He has also been utilized in the passing game very well so far when Smith has been pressured. If there is one thing that is known, its that Sanders will be where he's supposed to be on every play. Reliability isn't guaranteed with some of the younger players. Louisville is going to bring a ton of pressure and Sanders could be needed in pass protection. His experience could come in handy with blitz pickup.
George is the teams big back and he's seen a lot of time in an H-Back type of role. He scored a nice touchdown on a fake jet sweep this past weekend. George was used as a blocker on the first possession on a jet sweep, but on the second possession the pitch was faked and George leaked past the defense for an easy 48-yard catch. Look for more plays like this early on in the game Saturday. Kemp got a lot of carries this past week and he showed flashes of his big play ability. He didn't break loose for a big run, but he is extremely quick and if he gets the edge on the defense he could do some serious damage.
Javess Blue, Ryan Timmons, Alex Montgomery, and Jeff Badet are the new additions to the wide receiver group this year and they all had breakout games this past weekend. They gave the quarterbacks options to spread the ball around and they give their coach versatility. Both Blue and Timmons were used on jet sweeps, while Badet scored on a deep post route that Blue scored on earlier in the game. Montgomery is the possession guy that provides a bigger target for the quarterbacks.
Blue is your best bet to catch a pass in space and test Louisville's new emphasis on tackling. He's super quick and does a good job of making guys miss without losing speed. Timmons is being used all over the field and he has made some significant big plays. He just hasn't broken one for a touchdown. He is a smaller guy and has gone down pretty easy. Louisville needs to be sound with their tackling because if he gets out in space he more than likely won't be caught from behind. Those two guys are the keys to the offense in my opinion. Louisville will more than likely decide to take the aggressive approach Western Kentucky did. They lined up in press coverage and made UK beat them before the blitzers got to the quarterback. It didn't work out too well for UK and Whitlow and Smith both struggled to be accurate with pressure in their face. These receivers have the ability to get open. The question is how the offense adjusts to the pressure. Brown wasn't able to really utilize a lot of the deception and motion two weeks ago because his quarterbacks didn't have the time to let plays develop. Louisville will need to apply the same pressure Saturday.
Right guard Kevin Mitchell is coming off of a week in which he was named SEC offensive lineman of the week. He had nine knockdown blocks in the win. The matchup to watch in my opinion will be right tackle Jordan Swindle against Lorenzo Mauldin. Swindle struggled against Western and Mauldin is the same type of relentless pass rusher that gave Swindle trouble two weeks ago. Roy Philon dominated at Commonwealth two years ago and he will lock up with Mitchell when we go to our base defense. That battle will be a fun one. Mitchell is no slouch and Philon really likes playing in his hometown. He has a bone to pick with UK and it shows.
UK's line, as well as pretty much every position group looked really good against a pretty terrible Miami of Ohio team after looking over-matched against WKU. It will be interesting to see if the confidence that was gained last week will translate into success on the field Saturday. The mental aspect of the game couldn't be more important when you have to rely on young players. UK is still green at key positions but the veterans on the line and in the backfield will need to build on last week to have success against Louisville's defense.
KEY PLAYERS: RB Raymond Sanders, WR Javiss Blue, RG Kevin Mitchell
I don't drink the kool-aid that most do when it comes to UK's defensive line. We all heard the same thing last year because, to be honest, no one could find any other position to highlight. The line is better this year. But not nearly as improved as some of that talk would lead you to believe. Zadarius Smith is a very good player. He's very talented, and more importantly, he plays with a great motor. I always say that playing defensive line is more about effort than anything else and he brings it. But there's not much else to call home about. Alvin Dupree is back opposite Smith and he had a really good game against Miami (As did the entire defense). But he was shut down by Western's offensive line and flat out didn't look any different than he did last year. The defensive tackle tandem of Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble have combined for six total tackles and one tackle for loss. To put that into context, backup Mike Douglass has five tackles and a sack (which counts as a TFL). Both are seniors. Both have been overrated for years. Not to be too critical, but numbers don't lie. Smith has put up good numbers in his first two games. Rumph and Cobble haven't. They do a decent job of taking up blockers, but at some point they should be making a play or two themselves.
Some have said that Kentucky owns the advantage against Louisville's offensive line, which struggled last weekend with run blocking. I would say that the addition of Smith and freshman Jason Hatcher, along with Douglass, should make the matchup more important. But the line was dominated by Western and I would compare Louisville's line to them before I compared them to Miami.
Avery Williamson continues the tradition of one UK linebacker racking up an absurd amount of tackles and landing on an All-SEC team. He's a legit talent like the rest of them too. Williamson plays the run extremely well. He's an angle guy that uses his speed to track down guys on outside runs, but he isn't afraid to stick his nose in there with the big guys. He is the unquestioned leader of the defense and he had his guys ready to play against Miami. He's joined at linebacker by Kory Brown, Khalid Henderson, and TraVaughn Paschal. All three have played significant minutes and I think the coaches will continue to rotate them to some degree. Brown has been banged up leading the coaches to utilize more Nickel but he is listed on the depth chart this week unlike last week. Paschal has been the big story over the last few weeks. Stoops thinks that he could be the fastest player on his defense and compared him favorably to some very talented players he coached at Florida State.
Teddy Bridgewater set the school record last year when he completed 90% of his passes against an extremely young Kentucky defense. Well, UK's secondary is still fairly young. Cornerback Fred Tiller is a sophomore. Opposite him is JUCO transfer Nate Willis, who is playing in his third game at this level. Nickel back Blake McClain was playing high school ball at this time last year. And Cody Quinn, who has been out injured, has only one year under his belt.
The bigger issue for the secondary in my opinion is that they weren't tested last week. They looked flat out bad against Petrino's passing attack in week one and more than anything they needed some game action last week to tighten up in coverage. However, Miami only threw the ball fourteen times. To be honest Miami has the worst offense in the country. That doesn't help a secondary that was picked apart the week before. Nate Willis has to live up to the lofty expectations put on him this summer. If he can make a couple of plays on his side of the field and make Teddy think twice about going after him, it will go a long way with how Stoops and Defensive Coordinator D.J. Eliot scheme and adjust. If the corners can't keep up with Louisville's receivers, the previous 1,999 words I've typed were a waste of time.
Eliot and Stoops run a basic 4-3 defense. Stoops didn't reinvent the wheel when he took over at Florida State. He reinvigorated their defensive intensity. Stoops had three defensive ends drafted last year. Only two play at a time obviously. It goes to show how much talent he had at his disposal. His system is simple: Be as aggressive as possible and challenge the offense to beat you. It rarely worked for opposing offenses. Last week against Miami he was really able to implement his defense and he showed some wrinkles against Miami's Flexbone offense. He routinely brought either safety Ashely Lowery or Eric Dixon into the box, and left one safety high. I'd be shocked if that happens against Louisville but it shows that Eliot is willing to adjust his defense a bit. It really was rare to see Stoops to adjust his defense at FSU because he simply didn't have to very often.
Lowery and Dixon are both very solid tacklers and very physical guys. But neither are burners. Louisville will more than likely spread the field and try to create favorable numbers for the run game. They will also try to make sure that they get single coverage on the outside and test the corners with DeVante Parker and Damien Copeland. Lowery and Dixon will have to cover a lot of ground to give support over top for the inexperienced corners. They will also have to try to take away the seams from Gerald Christian and Ryan Hubbell. They honestly might have the toughest task of anyone on either side of the ball.
Watching the WKU game showed one major issue that UK has to fix this week. The defense was always a step behind wide receivers and tight ends. The defensive systems relies on its coverage to create smaller windows for the quarterback to throw into. With Teddy's accuracy, it will be a long day for the defense if he can distribute the ball to open receivers like he has so far this year. The secondary and linebackers will have to stay with their man while the defensive line tries to rush Teddy.
KEY PLAYERS: DE Zadarius Smith, DE Alvin Dupree, MLB Avery Williamson, S Ashley Lowery
1. Max Smith's right shoulder is so bad that he was told by the training staff to "try not to land on it".
2. Ashely Lowery nearly killed himself when he drunkenly crashed his car this summer.
4. Kentucky still hasn't sold out this game. There are tons of tickets left if you want to go.