If you’re giving ratings for Kentucky football’s offensive restart, it’s hard to give Liam Coen and Will Levis anything below a rock solid “B”.
Needing to diversify a British ground attack, Mark Stoops hired Coen from Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams coaching staff.
Wanting to set up the Rams’ offense at Lexington, Coen lured strong arm Levis, a former Penn State quarterback, to Lexington.
Kentucky’s offensive transformation went well enough that the No.25 Wildcats (9-3, 5-3 SEC) were actually favored against the No.17 Iowa (10-3, 7-3 Big Ten) in the VRBO Citrus Bowl on New Years Day in Orlando.
For a British offense that has improved dramatically in most major statistical categories in 2021, a strong Iowa defense gives the Cats a chance to validate their progress.
“They’re not giving you anything easy,” Coen said of the Hawkeyes last week. “They don’t mix everything up. They do what they do and they do it extremely well.”
The numbers tell about just how more proficient Kentucky’s offense has become in 2021 compared to the previous season.
Kentucky has gone from 122nd place in the FBS in passing (121.5 yards per game) in 2020 to 71st this season (225.1 yards per game).
The UK fell from 107th in 2020 (21.8 points per game) to 34th in 2021 (32.8 points) and from 115th in total offense (318 yards per game) to 41st (431.2).
The 2021 Wildcats entered the red zone 17 times (50-33) more than the 2020 Cats (albeit in one more game), and scored on 14 more of those practices than the previous season (42 to 28).
Even the racing game has improved. Kentucky was 23rd in the FBS for rushing yards (206.1 per game) in 2021, up from 34th (196.5) in 2020.
Featured running back Christopher Rodriguez is 15th in the FBS for rushing (1,272 yards).
Leading receiver Wan’Dale Robinson already set a Kentucky single-season record for one-season receptions (94) and ranks 19th in the FBS for receiving yards (1,164).
At quarterback, Levis threw for 2,593 yards, the most of a British QB since Mike Hartline (3,178) in 2010.
Kentucky’s offensive line was named one of four finalists for the Joe Moore Award, signifying the country’s best attacking front (Michigan was ultimately named the winner).
Two areas prevented the British offensive from getting an “A”.
With a late chance to beat SEC rival Tennessee, Kentucky’s “two-minute offense” fell through, resulting in a disheartening 45-42 loss.
The same problem arose when the mismanagement of the Louisville clock gave the UK the opportunity to score points just before half-time. In what became a British 52-21 rout, Kentucky again failed to capitalize on their two-minute offense.
The other problem was the turnovers.
In 2021, Kentucky returned the ball 22 times. With some key players battling ‘fumble-itis’ at various times throughout the year, the UK have lost 10 fumbles, three more than the previous season.
Meanwhile, Levis threw 12 interceptions, seven more than the UK’s much more ground attack produced in 2020.
All of those sales (and a relative lack of takeout defensively) have Kentucky 128th in the FBS in terms of sales margin (minus-13). A season ago, the UK finished 13th in the same category (plus-10).
Aside from the UK’s Stoops against the team he played for in college, the most intriguing aspect of the Citrus Bowl game stems from the comparison between turnover and margin.
The Iowa defense led the NCAA in pass interceptions with a solid 24. That helps the Hawkeyes rank third in the FBS in terms of plus-13 turnover margin.
Six different Iowa defenders have multiple interceptions. Hybrid safety linebacker Dane Belton leads the Hawkeyes with five, while cornerback Riley Moss – the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year – has four.
âThey’re so technically strong and basically solid that it can get frustrating at times as a quarterback and cause you to make a bad decision (with the ball),â Coen said of the Iowa âDâ. . “That’s what they’re trying to base their system on – let the quarterback or the offense mess it up.”
Hawking bullets isn’t all the Iowa defense is good at. The Hawkeyes are 13th in the FBS against rush (allowing just 113.8 yards per game) and 15th in total defense (326.8 yards per game).
So if Coen, Levis and the Kentucky offense can perform well against such a quality defense, it ends 2021 with a categorical validation of the new offensive regime. It would also build even more on the positive momentum of the program that the UK is overcoming following the U of L explosion and its much-loved recruiting class of 2022.
Kentucky will have to rely on their balance, Coen said, to avoid putting LÃ©vis in conditions that, against Iowa, tend to produce interceptions.
âIt’s really going to be a game where our guys come out and play and be special with the ball in hand,â Coen said.
Britain’s offensive has made clear progress in 2021. Its performance against a top-level defense from Iowa will show us just how far these upward steps have reached.
(c) 2021 the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)
Visit the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.) At www.kentucky.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.