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Kentucky’s offense has struggled, but its ground game presents a challenge

Vanderbilt v Kentucky Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

For the last five years or so, Kentucky has been consistent in its approach on the offensive side: run the dang ball. The Wildcats haven’t averaged more than 25 passing attempts per game since 2015, which makes them a bit of an oddity among power-conference schools.

This period of run-heavy offense coincides with a successful stretch for Mark Stoops that includes a four-year run with winning records and a five-year bowl streak. Kentucky will finish below .500 this but probably would have at least had the opportunity for a winning record with a normal schedule.

It hasn’t made for great offense in general—Kentucky tends not to light up the scoreboard—but its effective ground game helps shorten games as well as hide its substandard quarterbacks.

That’s not an overwhelming success strategy, but there are worse ideas for a team that’s going to have less talent than the majority of its conference opponents. This season was a particular struggle, though, with Kentucky posting its lowest scoring and YPP averages since 2013.

2020 Kentucky Offense

Yds/Play (rk) Yds/Rush Yds/PassAtt Comp% Passer Rtg Run% Pass%
Yds/Play (rk) Yds/Rush Yds/PassAtt Comp% Passer Rtg Run% Pass%
5.1 (98) 4.82 (36) 5.6 (118) 59.5 (77) 112.43 (112) 60.9 39.1

Stoops fired his offensive coordinator earlier this month and the Wildcats will play the Gator Bowl with an interim play-caller. This isn’t likely the change the meat-and-potatoes of Kentucky’s approach—there’s only so much you can change in a couple of weeks—but there is some added uncertainty for NC State’s coaching staff as they prepare.

Not that’s necessarily all to Kentucky’s advantage, since the gentleman calling the plays on Saturday will be handling that responsibility for the first time in his career. The Wildcats’ tight ends coach is stepping into a phone booth and emerging as an OC for one week only—a new OC already has been hired.

The upheaval may alter some tendencies but the bottom line for an opposing defense will remain the same: the more you can force Kentucky’s passing game into the light of day, the less likely the Wildcats are to be successful. Quarterback Terry Wilson has a lot of experience as a starter and he adds another threat to the running game, but he’s never been much of a passer, and Kentucky’s air attack is a liability.

NC State’s defense needs to make that the difference.