The 3-2-1: Opportunistic Cats have an underrated recipe for wins

Justin Rowland, Publisher
Cats Illustrated

Cats Illustrated's 3-2-1 feature returns with the memory of UK's narrow win over Eastern Michigan still fresh. The focus shifts to Kentucky's game against Missouri, with the Cats a rare two touchdown favorite in an SEC game.

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WHAT WE'VE LEARNED

Josh Allen is a first team All-SEC caliber player.

Let's not pretend like this has come out of nowhere. The former three-star recruit was obviously overlooked coming out of high school but his improvement at Kentucky has been a clear linear progression with his technique, motor and attention to detail improving at the same time, seemingly at the same rate, as his physical maturation.

Allen had seven sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss and led the SEC in forced fumbles last year. Through five games this season he has been Kentucky's most unblockable force on the front seven with 5.5 sacks, several other hurries and close calls and 7.5 tackles for loss.

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Pro Football Focus graded Allen as one of the league's top defensive players last week. There are still little things he can improve on, but Allen has gotten better against the run. He averaged 4.77 tackles per game last year and is up to 6.2 per game in 2017. At this rate, Allen should finish as a first team All-SEC player. The Bud Dupree comparisons may still be premature, but they don't sound quite as bold as they might have a year ago.

One unit has taken a clear step back, two units have taken clear steps forward.

It's tough to measure how happy or unhappy a fan base really is. You wouldn't think that would be the case with social media and more platforms and megaphones for the average fan, but those platforms and megaphones create a lot of noise that's tough to sort through, and the negative crowd is usually the louder group. But it's clear that a lot of Kentucky fans are focusing on the offense's struggles.

Let's not sugarcoat things. The offense has been downright ugly for most of 2017. Not necessarily against South Carolina, and in terms of effectiveness not really against the Gators. But they have not racked up the kinds of numbers or done the kind of stat padding you would expect against the non-SEC teams on the schedule. So much of that is the line's struggles, because if you're poor up front the ripple effect is almost impossible to overstate.

But let's also not forget that the defensive improvement has been dramatic. Advanced S&P+ statistics show that Kentucky's defense rates 62nd nationally but the unit is 30th in points allowed. The Wildcats allowed 25 rushing touchdowns in 2016 and have given up just four through five games this year. They are third in the nation in rush defense, and while that's unlikely to hold as opponents on the back half of the schedule are better equipped to test that front seven, the improvement is remarkable.

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Furthermore, the special teams' improvement has been even more dramatic. The unit ranks 27th nationally according to the S&P+ numbers, and that's the best Kentucky has been in a very long time. It doesn't appear to be a fluke, either, with Matthew Panton's success well established by now, Charles Moushey and others bolstering the coverage unit(s), and Charles Walker (when healthy) leading Kentucky to a tie for 1st nationally in punt return effectiveness.

Don't confuse "pretty" or exciting with effective, and effective is more closely connected to wins and losses. That's why there can easily be a disconnect between how a fan feels about how a game went, and how the game actually turned out. If Kentucky starts losing games, the offensive struggles should take over more of the narrative. Until then, frustration with the offense shouldn't strangle out enthusiasm for the other two units.

Kentucky is a field position-based, opportunistic team

There's a real question as to how much the offense (and particularly the line) might improve, but five games have run their course and by now this much is clear: We know a lot about Kentucky, and what we know is this is a team that's comfortable playing a field position game with plenty of opportunism.

It's been a while since Kentucky has been good according to field position metrics. That's what happens when you can't sustain drives, you have punting issues, your defense gives up too many yards and you don't have a capable return man. But Kentucky now has the return man (Walker is averaging 20 yards per return), the punter and a defense that can at least hold its own. The offense still needs to move the chains more.

All told, Kentucky is one of the nation's top 25 teams when it comes to field position. That is, starting and ending field position on average for the offense and defense. Studies have shown that teams that win the field position battle win close to three fourths of the time. When you win the field position at the level that Kentucky has won it and you're +7 in turnover margin (through five games, no less), your chances of overperforming based on your raw offensive and defensive stats rises dramatically.

Is five games enough of a sample to conclude that this field position-based opportunism is this Kentucky team's DNA or an outlier? That's really tough to tell. But digging deeper, maybe not. Stephen Johnson has clearly benefited from an offseason heavily focused on protecting the football, the defense is much older and more mature with a degree of continuity marked by Matt House's elevation to coordinator, and the special teams fundamentals back up the overall field position numbers.

So the next time you find yourself wondering how Kentucky can win games with 250 yards of total offense, remember, it's not an aberration when you take other things into account.

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WHAT WE'RE ASKING

Will Kentucky come out strong or play down to the level of its competition ... again?

Let's start by acknowledging that this storyline, or perhaps a theory, has its limitations. It seems at first glance as though Kentucky in 2017 is a classic case of a team playing down to its competition. Why? Its best games were against South Carolina and Florida, arguably, and its greatest struggles, or at least its ugliest play, came against Southern Miss, Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Michigan. But the limitations come in because Kentucky is a solid team, not a great team, and there's still a debate over just how good the Gamecocks and Gators are.

All that said, it's clear that Kentucky has had at least some tendency to come out more sluggish and less focused against its non-Power Five opponents. Missouri is a conference opponent but the Tigers are two touchdown underdogs going into Saturday's game at Kroger Field.

There would really be no excuse for Kentucky not to come out and play well, because they survived a letdown performance after the disheartening loss to Florida. Common sense says this should be a game that gets all of Kentucky's attention and energy. It would be disappointing if that doesn't happen.

Is this the week the offensive line starts to put it together?

If it's not then we might be dealing with a line that never does. The dip in the line's effectiveness has been both noticeable and measurable. Kentucky is averaging 3.38 rushing yards per carry in 2017, and that's including games against three non-Power Five foes. Compare that to 5.44 yards per carry last year. There are the snap issues. The line has allowed 11 sacks compared to 21 last year (a worse pace, albeit not much worse).

There have been major injuries (Cole Mosier) and several minor injuries. There's less depth. Three different players have snapped the ball at center, following Jon Toth's four-year stint as a starter.

Missouri offers the perfect opportunity for the line to get things in order. John Schlarman said this week that he saw improvements from the Southern Miss game all the way through the Florida game, even if it didn't seem that way to everyone else watching. But he acknowledged a step back last week and a need to get back on the progress trajectory.

The Tigers are allowing 4.28 yards per carry. Opponents have already rushed for 14 touchdowns this season. Auburn scored three times out of the Wildcat formation last week. Missouri as a team has just nine sacks through four games with four of those coming against Missouri State.

If ever there were a game for the line to gel, it'd be this one. Kentucky's offensive line dominated Missouri from the opening snap last year. This has been a different line altogether for the Cats, but this is the week for the unit to get on track with a tough back half of the schedule on tap.

BOLD PREDICTION

Kentucky will handle Missouri with relative ease.

"They were 14 point favorites last week and we saw how that worked out," many of you might be thinking.

True.

But the odds of a team playing two nail biters in a row against 14-point underdogs, with both games at home, are slim. As mentioned before, last week was the hard part. Getting up after the Florida game? Not easy. This week is a chance to get to 5-1 through the first half of the schedule. Missouri has made every opponent it has faced this year look better than they are. The Tigers' bye week introduces a variable that's tough to quantify because Barry Odom's team has to know how they respond this week, with that extra time and the "reset" opportunity, will set the tone for the rest of their season. But Missouri is just not very good and Kentucky should take care of business and notch perhaps its most convincing win of 2017.

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