Cats fighting offensive inconsistency

·4 min read

Sep. 22—In spite of a 3-0 start and the highest Associated Press Top 25 poll ranking in decades, No. 8 Kentucky is well aware of its offensive shortcomings so far in 2022 — and, by all accounts, Wildcats coaches are embracing the chance to improve.

According to first-year offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, who joined the UK staff in February after serving as the San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks coach last season, the Cats' early offensive inconsistencies will take a team-wide effort to address.

"I was disappointed after the game, honestly, because you coach a long time and you know the pitfalls you can walk yourself into," Scangarello said of Saturday's 31-0 victory over Youngstown State. "Coach (Mark Stoops) made a message all week, and I thought we had a really good week of practice and thought we were ready to play up to our standard, regardless of opponent. And then we just didn't meet those expectations.

"It was a step back, not forward."

Paired with a defensive unit that pitched a shutout Saturday for the first time since 2009 despite missing star linebacker JJ Weaver with an arm injury for most of the afternoon, UK's coaches haven't been satisfied with their offensive output.

Although quarterback Will Levis threw for 377 yards and a pair of touchdowns, he also threw two interceptions, and the Cats' running game never truly got off the ground.

Through three games this season, Kentucky is 75th among 130 FBS teams in scoring with 31.3 points per game and 92nd in total offense with 368.3 yards per contest. Where this year's Cats truly differ from UK teams of the past is in the rushing game, where Kentucky is averaging a paltry 74.3 yards per outing and sits 122nd in the nation in that category.

Some of that can be attributed to the four-game suspension of All-SEC running back Chris Rodriguez Jr., who won't return until UK's Oct. 1 meeting at Ole Miss, but the Cats' running backs have also taken a hit with injuries.

Ramon Jefferson, a former FCS All-American who transferred from Sam Houston State and was expected to shoulder a heavy load, tore his ACL in the season-opener and will miss the rest of the year. JuTahn McClain, expected to serve as a key reserve rusher, injured his leg in the season-opener and has since been considered week-to-week for a return, Stoops said Monday.

By default, Kavosiey Smoke has been UK's leading rusher so far, but he's tallied only 178 yards and one touchdown on 39 attempts. La'Vell Wright is the Cats' second-leading runner with 62 yards on 20 carries.

Scangarello took the blame for some of the negative-yardage calls during Saturday's game, but he noted that the lack of running success boils down to several different factors.

"It's a combination," he said. "I don't want to make excuses, that's the first thing. ... We can do enough scheme and we've got good enough players where we can still fight our way through it, but you want it to be polished and tight.

"We'll get better. Nothing's got to be perfect, but then the playmakers have got to make it up for you. Sometimes you've got to run over a guy, sometimes you've got to make someone miss, and take care of the ball. If we do those things, we'll be fine and the run game will be great."

Kentucky's offensive line has been inconsistent, as well.

Starting left tackle Kenneth Horsey missed the first game of the year with an injury but has been back for the last two outings. Right guard Tashawn Manning was out against Youngstown State, as well. Add that to a group that's still working to find its footing, and it's been an up-and-down process.

"I thought they did a nice job against Florida, but I thought in this game they did not meet the standard of play that we expect, and they know that," Scangarello noted. "... They have to own it, we have to own it, and I thought we had a good day today and hopefully we can build on that."

Still, UK remains undefeated as it heads into Saturday's home meeting against Northern Illinois, and Scangarello considers it another chance to work on consistency.

"I feel like there's been parts of the game that have been very tight and very sound and very good," he said. "In the end, if you don't take penalties and negative plays, and you take care of ball, you're going to win most of the time.

"That's how you win a championship, and ultimately that's the part that we've got to own, all of us, and if we do that, which we will, then we can chase those goals that we all have."