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#W2W4: Kentucky Wildcats

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This week’s What To Watch For takes a look at the run game.

NCAA Football: Austin Peay at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

BENNY SNELL IN THE WILDCAT FORMATION

Kentucky has a running game that has rarely been stopped this season and they have done a really good job of sticking to what they do well. Kentucky likes to run the ball and run the ball until you make them stop. When they really get things going, they can use true freshman power back Benny Snell in the Wildcat. To me, there is nothing more disrespectful than lining up in a formation that tells the defense what you’re going to do and still just snapping the ball and doing it. Kentucky has used the Wildcat before and they’ve won games by simply running the same play over and over again with JoJo Kemp. Snell brings a different wrinkle to the formation, however.

Snell is a true power back. He runs through arm tackles and powers through tight spaces. He also has really good burst through the hole and patience to find that hole. I think that Snell could have a big impact on this game because UK will want to control the clock to keep the ball away from Lamar Jackson. He can also factor into this game because he can wear down a defense with his running style. Snell is young and energetic and he hasn’t gotten to the point where you learn to avoid contact. Louisville hasn’t subbed much all year on defense, so it could be a real issue if UK gets their Wildcat package rolling and Louisville tires out up front.

HAS LOUISVILLE’S RUN DEFENSE BEEN FOOL’S GOLD?

I’ve been pretty critical of Louisville’s defense this year because they haven’t been as dominant as they maybe should have been against lesser teams. They’ve been killed by turnovers and penalties committed by the offense and they are a well above average defense as a whole. But, I think that a lot of their success has come from playing bad offenses. Louisville’s schedule included the 6 teams with the worst yards per carry average in the ACC as well as pass-happy teams like Marshall, Charlotte, and (somewhat) Houston. That leaves Clemson who averaged 6.48 ypc against Louisville and FSU who ended up at 3.98 ypc. Now that 2.73 ypc average that UofL is holding teams to is a little more suspect but not completely misleading.

When you dig a little deeper, Louisville has played 4 teams with winning records and in those games they have 3.26 ypc and 127 yards per game. As the opponent improves, the numbers go up. That’s to be expected, but that’s a pretty substantial uptick. You also have to factor in sack yardage. When you take those sacks out UofL is allowing 4 ypc over the season. That’s still a good number, but it is about what a team needs to average if you want to drain the clock and keep the ball away from the opposing offense.

So, is “fool’s gold” the right term for the run defense? It might be overly harsh but I think most see the it as a “dominant” run defense and I don’t think that’s accurate, either. I would probably describe Louisville’s run defense as one that can play dominant at times against bad and solid teams and one that can be exposed against really good offenses. UK provides a good opportunity for this team to show that they can stop a good running team. Kentucky has the best running game of any team Louisville faces this year and I would be completely fine with the Louisville defense making me eat my words.

WILL LOUISVILLE START SLOW AGAIN?

Louisville has started off slow and sluggish against UK a couple of times over the last few years and it was out of character for those teams. Somehow those slow starts have become the norm for this year’s squad. We all saw slow starts against UVA and Duke and how those starts turned into close games. The sloppy and sluggish starts against Wake and Houston impacted the game drastically and Wake led going into the fourth quarter. Houston took the sloppy start and used it to beat down a Louisville team that couldn’t recover.

UofL was able to bounce back from those slow start, in part, because they completely out-classed Kentucky from a talent standpoint. While I think that there is still a sizable gap in overall talent between these two teams, I think that UK has gotten better in all the areas where they’ve been exposed over the last two seasons. Kentucky has a two-headed monster at running back as well as a quarterback who is a little bit better at not losing the game. They have linebackers who can fill a hole and hit people as well as blitz and cover. They also have a secondary that won’t likely be dominated in the air. Now, they still don’t have a quarterback that will likely win the game for them and they don’t have enough speed on defense to stop a guy like Lamar Jackson. But, they’re improved in key areas and they can run the ball well enough to keep Lamar on the sideline. That’s a bad setup for this Louisville team.

CAN KENTUCKY BRING PRESSURE LIKE HOUSTON DID?

Kentucky has the most boring defensive scheme that I get to watch each year in preparation for this game. They just don’t do too much of anything that would confuse or surprise the opposing quarterback. Their interior defensive linemen haven’t made many plays in this system and that makes it harder on everyone else. Their linebackers are much better this year, however, so Kentucky has more versatility. Louisville couldn’t handle second level pressure last week as well as just a normal 4-man rush. UK won’t be able to just line up and get pressure like a Clemson or Houston. They don’t have the line for that. What they do have is three second level players who can all run and can all blitz from a distance.

The big question with all of this is whether or not Mark Stoops and D.J. Eliot can change their system into a pressure scheme in a week. Kentucky has blitzes in their playbook. All defenses have some blitzes or pressure plays. I doubt they have enough pressure plays to be able to be able to sustain that pressure over a full game without Bobby Petrino adjusting to them. Houston brought safeties, corners, front side linebackers, backside linebackers, d-line twists, and d-line stunts to mix things up and get to Lamar Jackson before he could figure out where the pressure was coming from. That’s the versatility that a defense needs to be a “pressure” defense. Clemson did the same earlier this season. You hire defensive-minded coaches for situations like this. Stoops can show that he more than just an everyday head coach with a good game plan this weekend.

LOUISVILLE’S OFFENSIVE LINE NEEDS HELP

The Cardinals offensive line was flat out embarrassed last week against Houston. There were plays where pass rushers went free while all five linemen didn’t block anyone. There were false starts and holds. There were vine-worthy moments that the entire country saw. It was awful and it was something that most fans saw coming at some point. Louisville hasn’t had a good offensive line in a few years and they haven’t played very well against top defenses. They’ve also been put in bad positions much too often.

Where were the creative misdirection plays on Thursday? Not just a screen pass like one would think against a fast and aggressive defense. I’m talking about jet sweeps that would move the defense and set up fake sweeps or play action passes. Where was the play action, period? The offensive line was hung out to dry. At some point the offense should have gone to quicker passes as well as moving Lamar as much as possible. Having him drop back off of shotgun was a recipe for disaster after the first handful of plays of the game. We saw their pressure and didn’t do anything to counter it. The line didn’t play well at all, but at some point they needed someone to give them a hand.