In a year of offensive explosion and record-breaking passing offenses, the Kentucky Wildcats are plodding along with 23 points per game on a staggering 64% rushing rate. And it’s not like they’re eschewing free yards by not passing— The Wildcats are getting 5.7 yards per pass (really bad) and 5.1 yards per rush (quite good).
Schematically, this offense will actually remind many Alabama fans of a lite-version of the 2016 Crimson Tide offense, minus the WR jet sweeps and big plays from Calvin Ridley.
The entire running game is built on the zone read, with a mix of zone blocking, crack backs, and the occasional pulling guards and combo blocks. It’s a scheme designed for cranking out 4 yard gains, and the Wildcat offensive line is really, really good at it. That said, the lack of a power man scheme and limited athleticism limits their ability to block in the second level or on outside runs, so once a running back gets past the line of scrimmage, any other yards are usually just a bonus.
Senior running back Asim Rose, Jr. saw a lot of snaps at the start of the season, but has seen his role diminish as the season has worn on (both on a season-long trend and in individual games as he plays much more in the first half of games). On the other hand, the 225-lb sophomore, Chris Rodriguez, Jr., has seen his role increase as the season has gone on, and he leads the team with 562 yards on only 88 carries— a ridiculous 6.4 yards per carry.
Rodriguez is tough to bring down, exceptional at navigating traffic past the line, and fast enough to be a danger to rip off a big run any time. Throw that in with the omnipresent threat of a QB keeper on a read-option that can put a defense in a 1-man disadvantage, and Kentucky can gain a whole lot of yards in a short amount of time on the ground. They’re happy to run the ball on first, second, and third downs if a defense doesn’t prove they can stop it.
QB Terry Wilson plays like the senior he is in an offense that accentuates his abilities while mitigating his limitations. He’s a slick runner that functions as a decoy and a constraint from the main rushing attack on nearly every play. You typically see more of the traditional zone reads where the running back goes inside and the QB threatens to keep the ball around the back end, but he’s also more than happy to run an inverted veer or midline keeper right up the middle of the line.
As a passer, he mostly sticks to quick slants off of playaction. When defenses start keying in on the read option by blitzing the backside edge, the Wildcats are quick to adjust and hit a slant right over the top of the blitzing man.
On 3rd and longs, they’ll typically run a combination of drag routes that Wilson can either take the immediate slant, take off scrambling and hit a drag late, or just attempt to run for the 1st down. There’s generally not much of an attempt to really pass the ball downfield at all really.
Senior receiver Josh Ali is the primary target on pretty much every pass play. His 343 yards on 34 receptions are triple the next highest receiver, and he has 40% of the Wildcats’ total passing production. He’s got reliable hands and is tough after the catch, making him an excellent target on all those slant routes.
On one hand, this type of rushing attack is modeled after Lane Kiffin’s 2016 offense and, therefore, somewhat similar to the Ole Miss attack that gashed Alabama earlier this year. On the other hand, the effectiveness of that is severely dampened by Wilson’s lack of a downfield passing threat (especially compared to the arm of Matt Corral).
Expect Rodriguez to get a few big gains on Alabama’s defense if Dylan Moses and Christian Harris aren’t ready to bring their A-game on the interior on every single play, as I expect the Alabama defensive line to lose their fair share of matchups with the Kentucky OL. And then don’t be surprised to see Terry Wilson bust off a few frustrating 1st down runs after the entire defense crashes down on a fake to Rodriguez.
Because of that, I think Kentucky will move the ball better than many Alabama fans hope/expect, but I also think that the lack of a true passing threat will see many of their drives falter short of the goalline, especially into the second half as Alabama gets more and more used to their offense.
Moses and Harris could very well combine for 30 tackles in this one, while I don’t expect we see too much from the secondary. Malachi Moore will be the most targeted defensive back, so he needs to be ready to defense the slants out of the slot.
Will Anderson is the wildcard of the matchup, though. I expect he’ll be left unblocked on the backside quite often, so there’s going to be a lot riding on him to make the correct decision time and time again to either force the QB or RB keeper. And, if he’s explosive enough off the snap, he can absolutely wreck the mesh point before the fake gets started (which is something we’ve seen him do many times this year already).
If Anderson can do that 3-4 times, then it could totally derail the Kentucky offense.