Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown is an Air Raid guy, through and through.
He played for Hal Mumme, considered the godfather of the offense that had a reverberating impact on college football, at Kentucky in the late 1990s. Brown has run the system throughout his seven-year career as an offensive coordinator. Like most Air Raid disciples, he has put his own spin on the attack and it continues to evolve in his second season as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator.
So it was only natural that, when Kentucky scored a landmark win over South Carolina on Oct. 4, it did so thanks in large part to … the Wildcat formation?
Mumme, now the head coach at NAIA school Belhaven, noticed.
“It's funny,” Brown said. “He texted me after the South Carolina game and it was a good text. He was basically saying, 'The No. 1 thing is to win.' He wants to throw the football, no question. But he wants to win and he likes being different. And the Wildcat deal is a non-traditional way, so I think he can relate to that."
Yes, the Wildcat formation has given Kentucky an edge recently, particularly in the 45-38 victory over the Gamecocks. Brown is all about doing whatever it takes to win. If that means doing something different from what his core principles dictate, that’s fine.
With Kentucky (5-1) serving as one of the best stories in the SEC and a game away from bowl eligibility, who are we to argue? The Wildcats are averaging 36.5 points per game and have scored more than 40 in their last two. Solid quarterback play from sophomore Patrick Towles and depth at running back and receiver, thanks in part to an influx of talent from Mark Stoops’ recruiting classes, have made a night-and-day difference for Kentucky’s offense compared to where it was at this time last season.
Brown’s standard offensive principles remain intact. The Wildcat is simply something different to throw at teams and something he has used since his first year as an offensive coordinator at Troy. But against South Carolina, it was particularly successful.
That night, sophomore running back Jojo Kemp put together a career-best performance, much of it running the Wildcat. Initially planning to only use it a handful of plays, Kentucky leaned on the formation, particularly in crunch time, and continued to use it as they had success. Kemp wound up with career-highs in carries (17), rushing yards (131) and rushing touchdowns (three) in the emotional victory.
“Jojo is great; he played awesome,” Towles said. “Without him, I don't know if we win that football game.”
Brown, who said he likes to use the Wildcat formation occasionally, figured it wasn’t broke so there was no sense in fixing it.
"Going in, I thought we'd use it between six and eight snaps a game,” he said. “We used it in short yardage and to get Jojo Kemp some touches. And then we got there in the fourth quarter [vs. South Carolina] and we hit it on a short-yardage play for a 10-plus yard gain. Then on first down, I stayed in it, and we hit it for another big gain, and from there it just became, 'Hey, they aren't stopping it; let's keep doing it and make them stop it.' Fortunately for us, they didn't that night."
Kemp’s season-high workload was well above his usual carry total (he hasn’t had more than nine carries in any other game this season) but he answered the bell every time, and produced results like this.
“I got tired a lot of times,” Kemp said. “But I had to suck it up and go out there and be a man."
The formation also yielded a perfectly-executed trick play in which Towles, who usually motions out to line up as a receiver in the formation, took a handoff on a reverse and threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Ryan Timmons. The play gave Kentucky a lead early in the second half and provided a spark.
“We worked on that play about 25 times in practice that week, it was good every time, we executed it every time,” Towles said. “[Brown] called the play, I told our offensive line what we were going to run and we had done it so many times that it was kind of second nature.”
The formation has only been one element of a successful offense that was in the bottom four in the SEC in most statistical categories a year ago but has climbed to the middle of the pack in the league so far this season. Kentucky has been solid defensively this season and the Wildcats are developing an offensive identity to match.
As they head into a crucial game at LSU on Saturday night, the Wildcats are looking to build on their surprise first half of the season. They’re not satisfied, though. They want more.
"We're excited, but we're focused,” Towles said. “Nobody came into the season wanting to win five games. We want to win every game we play.”