Examining Kentucky’s Defense
Part of what made Kentucky’s 2022 season so disappointing was that the Cats wasted what was an incredibly good defense. They allowed just 19.2 PPG, only once allowing more than 24 points (44 to Tennessee). They were easily good enough to win big if they’d just had a semi-competent offense. But instead, they were incapable of scoring basically anything and went 7-6.
This year, Kentucky has a semi-competent offense. In fact, you could probably call it more than that. But their defense isn’t up to the usual standard in Lexington. They’re surrendering just under 25 PPG, and in conference play, that number is just under 33. To be fair to them, three of their conference opponents have fielded strong offenses that rank within the top-20 of ESPN’s SP+ ratings. Taking that into account, SP+ still has the Wildcat defense rated 24th.
They’re certainly not a bad unit. But they’ve had some deficiencies that have cost them over the last three weeks. Specifically, they’re passing defense has been a struggle. They’re allowing 248 pass yards per game, and teams are completing nearly 69% of this passes against them.
Kentucky typically likes to base out of quarters schemes designed to only give up the underneath completions. They’re mostly middle of the pack in terms of yards per attempt allowed, so it’s not as though that strategy hasn’t worked. But teams have still been able to find some one-on-one opportunities against their CBs and taken advantage.
The Cats also like to play Cover 3, especially when facing a team that’s going to be more run heavy. Against Florida, who runs much of the same base scheme as Mississippi State. The single high look allows them to bring an extra defender down to help stop the run. Kentucky was successful in stopping the Gator run game, holding them to just 69 yards at just 2.4 YPC. But what this did allow was opportunities for Florida to hit some pass plays down field.
They didn’t connect on all of them, but QB Graham Mertz ended up having a solid day through the air. He hit this TD to Ricky Pearsall vs a Cover 3 look from Kentucky. The most popular deep shot in the game today is the Yankee concept, which includes a deep post from one side and an over route from the other. It picks on single high safeties. This plays off of that but uses a post-corner instead of a post to create a 3-level flood into the boundary, another good look to attack Cover 3. Pearsall is left wide open on the over route.
I’d expect Kentucky to sell out to stop Mississippi State’s run game, which should mean single high safety looks. That means chances to hit play-action shots downfield. Mike Wright showed the ability to connect on some of those, and he’ll need to on Saturday to give MSU a chance.
That’s not the say the Wildcats don’t have anything going for them in their secondary. CB Maxwell Hairston has five INTs on the season. Here he picks off a pass against Missouri. Kentucky looks like they’re in quarters pre-snap, and Mizzou goes with another pass concept you’ll regularly see these days that can attack 2-high looks: Post Wheel.
The Wildcats rotate into Cover 3, which Post Wheel isn’t great against. The QB is expecting Hairston to follow the post route from his #1 WR outside, which would leave space to hit the wheel down the sidelines. But instead, Hairston passes off the post to the single-high safety and sits on the wheel route for the pick.
It’s tough to know what to expect from the Cats in terms of how successfully they are in defending State’s running game. They shut down a similar scheme in Florida’s, but the Gators don’t have the threat of a running QB like State does with Mike Wright. Georgia ran all over them, but it’s Georgia. Tennessee was even more dominant on the ground, and plenty of their runs feature the option of a QB run. But that’s another team that’s stronger up front than MSU, and the wide splits and shot play potential from Tennessee’s Veer and Shoot offense open up tons of space to run the football. State won’t get looks like this to run into.
But on the other hand, Joe Milton isn’t nearly as dynamic a runner as Mike Wright is, so perhaps State can find something there. Regardless, it will be important for Wright and State’s WRs to show they can challenge the Kentucky secondary in order for the Bulldog offense to do enough to win.