In Kentucky’s prototypical SEC slugfest with Missouri last week, Christoper Rodriguez carried the football 27 times in a 35-28 victory.
So with UK facing Chattanooga of the FCS on Saturday at Kroger Field, Liam Coen came up with a plan to protect the Wildcats’ star running back for upcoming SEC slobber-knockers by not subjecting him to another week of excess punishment.
“We played such a physical game last week, the plan going in (vs. Chattanooga) was to try to take some hits off of Chris,” Coen said.
That’s why Kentucky began the game with Kavosiey Smoke as its starting running back.
It’s why Rodriguez ended the first half with only six carries from scrimmage.
It’s why UK threw the ball twice as many times (28) in the first half as it ran it (14).
And, to be truthful, the “save CRod” plan played a large role in why UK came perilously close to losing to the visitors from the Football Championship Subdivision.
On a gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon, Kentucky avoided joining Florida State, Vanderbilt and Washington on the list of Power Five conference schools to have lost to FCS foes this season — barely. The Wildcats needed a fourth-quarter touchdown drive and a 95-yard pick-six from safety Tyrell Ajian to escape the Mocs with a 28-23 win before an announced crowd of 55,214.
Look, a win is a win is a win.
But in a season in which UK (3-0, 1-0 SEC) has aspirations of making a move toward the top tier of the SEC East, it was disappointing to see the Wildcats turn in such a flat effort in the season’s third game.
“Not very pleased,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said afterward. “Just got to be better in all areas, starting with myself.”
You might have won my entire 401k had you wagered me before the game that Chattanooga (1-2, 0-0 Southern Conference) would out-rush Kentucky.
But Coach Rusty Wright’s plucky Mocs did just that, running for 171 yards while limiting UK to 101.
Afterward, Coen lamented that the offensive approach he’d brought into the game — “The plan was to go in there and not really run as much,” he said — caused the balance of the Kentucky offense “to get out of whack.”
For all the attention on the powerful throwing arm of new UK quarterback Will Levis and the greater passing capacity that Coen was brought to Lexington from the NFL to implement, the Los Angeles Rams’ system that the new OC has installed is predicated on establishing the run to open up the pass.
While protecting Rodriguez (who finished with 46 yards on 13 carries) for Kentucky’s upcoming stretch of four SEC games in four weeks at South Carolina, vs. Florida, vs. LSU and at Georgia, might have seemed sensible, it also might have sent a message to the rest of UK’s offensive players that they didn’t have to bring the same level of zeal against Chattanooga that is needed in league games.
“I didn’t feel like I probably detailed the run game enough (leading into the game) because I wasn’t really planning on running it as much as we did last week,” Coen said. “Then when you get into a (competitive) ballgame, you need to be able to run it and we didn’t really have a lot of great stuff (in the game plan).”
The last time current Chattanooga defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward competed with Kentucky, he had stepped in as interim coach at Louisville after the 2018 firing of Bobby Petrino. That night, UK hung 56 points on the Cardinals’ defense in a 56-10 rout.
On Saturday, Ward may have laid out the plan on how teams are going to defend the strong-armed Levis. Chattanooga played two deep safeties to take away the long passes Levis has been so effective with in his first two UK starts. The Mocs tried to force the sometimes-accuracy-challenged QB to have to throw underneath.
The result was two Levis interceptions as well as a lost fumble in the pocket when the Kentucky quarterback couldn’t find anyone open.
“That’s what we expected,” Levis said of the deep safeties. “We did have some things drawn up that we thought would hit big. … We were just a few feet away from connecting on some big ones. And that’s on me.”
To his credit, Levis pushed through his turnovers and completed 23 of 35 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns. Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson continued to perform like a star for the Cats, going over 100 yards in receiving (111 on eight catches) for the third straight game.
Since arriving in Lexington, Coen, 35, has carried himself impressively. On Saturday, he showed that, though he might be young, he has mastered the oldest rule in the coaching manual:
When your unit plays poorly, the coach protects the players by taking the blame.
Coen lamented calling a game in which UK threw it more often (35 times) than it ran (27).
The big lesson learned should be that at Kentucky, no matter how much progress Stoops has made with the UK program, you are playing with fire if you go away from a team staple — such as Rodriguez carrying the rock — no matter the opponent.
“I didn’t help our guys today,” Liam Coen said. “Today was more on me than on our players.”