UK struggles to finish on the road against Tennessee, despite production on the ground


Kentucky running back Benny Snell Jr. carries a defender during the game against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium in Nashville, Ky. on Saturday, November 12, 2016. Photo by Josh Mott | Staff.

Anthony Crawford

If there ever was going to be a team that would put up over 400 rushing yards but still lose by double-digits, UK football would be a shoo-in for being that team. And that’s what happened in the blowout loss to Tennessee as the Cats outgained the Vols 443-376 on the ground and 635-599 in overall yardage, but still lost 49-36. 

The run game has been a crutch that the team has been able to lean on, but now following two-straight losses, this one making UK the first FBS school this season to rush for over 400 yards and still lose the game, it’s clear that that’s not enough for UK to compete against true SEC opponents, and in games overall moving forward.

“The one thing I know about football is that you’ve got to put it all together,” UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “Especially in this league, you have to put it all together. At times we had a chance to and we didn’t.”

Behind its impressive offensive line and two star running backs, UK could seemingly move the ball at will against Tennessee, and it showed as the team nearly broke its record for rushing yards in a game, 446, a record that dates back to 1951 against Tennessee Tech.

But even with all that production, the Cats only had 36 points to show for all their effort. And the play in the red-zone played a big part in that.

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“To be great, to get over the hump where we need to be, We’ve got to finish in the red-zone,” Gran said. “We’ve got to score touchdowns and not field goals, especially when you’re on the road.”

UK scored on five of its six trips to the red-zone but only two of the scores were touchdowns with the last one basically occurring in garbage time with the game out of reach. Leaving points on the board really hurt the team, especially when the Vols were able to respond quickly with touchdown drives of their own to answer every UK score.

Some blame could be put on the run game for that red-zone conversion rate when considering that the one scoreless trip occurred when true freshman running back Benny Snell Jr. lost a fumble for the first time this season and that the Cats were able to get as close as the one-yard line but still failed to tack on six points in their last drive of the first quarter. But how do you fault a run game that put up over 400 yards and put you in the red-zone six times?

It’s hard to win a game being as one-dimensional as UK was against Tennessee and the team really needs to get more out of the passing game going forward.

“We felt like we had some good calls and the bottom line is we didn’t execute,” Gran said. “Like coach (Stoops) talked about to the team, it’s about routine. The routine plays is what we’ve got to get to.”

The routine plays have been troubling UK for the better part of the season now, as coming short on first down passes and in the short game overall often leads to UK’s offense going stagnant. Against the Vols, both sides of UK’s struggles with routine plays were present as quarterback Stephen Johnson missed easy passes and his receivers often dropped the ones he didn’t.

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Some fault could be placed in the fact that the team lost its best playmaker in Jeff Badet early in the game to injury, but UK’s receiving corps should be able to sustain that type of hit and Johnson should be showing at least some improvement in the short passes with this being his seventh start of the season.

Snell put a majority of the blame on himself just because of his red-zone fumble, but he was actually a part of one of UK’s only reliable groups to play in the game. Even though, he and the team struggled to do what has been their message all season — “Finish”. 

“Finish is our main word. We gotta keep that word around. That’s the thing we can do, just finish,” Snell said. “Because I see the potential in all those guys They’re all family and it just feels like we’re—we just got so much skill all around and we just come up short. But we’re going to be ready for next week, I promise you.”