A note on that tired cliche of bashing the play-calling

There are few things in football more overrated than play-calling, yet there are apparently those among the unhappy Kentucky faithful taking the easy way out and banging on Randy Sanders’ decisions on Saturday, especially Patrick Towles’ second series at quarterback when after the freshman had led UK on an 80-yard drive, the Cats ran the football three times and punted.

Joker Phillips addressed that today at his press luncheon.

“I thought the first drive that he went in, we threw a naked, we threw a screen out to the tailback things that he should feel comfortable with,” said Phillips when asked about Towles. ” And then we max protect and one guy was losing his guy, so one of our tailbacks went and tried to help him and his guy came free. So we had a max protection for him and nothing he had to manage and he stood in there and made the play for us. So I thought his first series was really good.

“And then the second series I think we ran the ball three times. And you say, well, why did you run the ball three times when the guy just completed those passes. Well, we ran the ball on first down and got six. Okay. We ran the ball on second down and got three. So now it’s third and one. So we ran it on third down trying to get the first down.

“And then made a couple mistakes in the third series, but again, it’s to be expected.”

Indeed, on that second series, taking over at its own 14-yard line, UK ran Jonathan George for six yards. That set up a second-and-four. George was again handed the ball and picked up three yards. That brought up a third-and-one. Again, George ran the football, but this time was dropped for a four-yard loss.

It’s easy to criticize play calls on a three-and-out series, but don’t knock a series in which two of the three plays were successful. A successful first down gets at least 40 percent of the needed yards. Accomplished. A successful second down gets at least 60 percent of the needed yards. That, too, was accomplished. The third down play did not work.

It may also have been that Sanders knew that, after Towles five-for-five through the air on the previous drive, Mississippi State would turn up the pressure on the young quarterback. Sure enough, next series, State went hard for the quarterback, which resulted in the 12-yard sack and Towles suffering his high ankle sprain. The quarterback admitted afterward he should have gotten rid of the football.

After that, Towles’ foot was in a boot and the home team’s scant chances were up to Jalen Whitlow, another true freshman. Mississippi State was 4-0, ranked 20th in the nation, and No. 1 in turnover margin. Are we really going to blast Sanders’ play-calling in that against-the-odds situation? Seriously.

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  1. Pressguy says:

    You’re right, Mr. Clay. Kentucky football fans are so ignorant. We are so used to having such great signal callers that we can’t recognize those who are bad at it.
    Come on, Mr. Clay. If anything, using only that one series to act as a defense to bad play calling is cliche.
    How about all of the third and long draw plays, not just over this season but several seasons? How about insisting on running small backs through the line over and over again? How about calling plays where the receivers don’t run routes long enough for the first down?
    Give us a little credit, Mr. Clay. Most Kentucky fans know bad play calling when we see it. Remember Elliot Uzelac? We do.

  2. John Clay says:

    I remember Uzelac well. Covered him as beat writer, in fact. Signal-callers are quarterbacks, by way.

    The offense averaged 31.2 points and 427.8 yards per game in 2010, with the same guy calling the plays.

  3. Jeff Combs says:

    The thinking that they had to run the ball cause State defense would be expecting the pass is crazy. All defenses expect the pass from passing QB’s the trick is to do it anyway.

  4. John Clay says:

    So the trick is to play right into the defense’s hands?

  5. Pressguy says:

    It looks like UK played right into their hands anyway. Sanders continues to run stretch plays to the short side of the field, run on third and long, ask backup quarterbacks to throw 40 times per game. The man refuses to change what he does regardless of opponent and talent. He’s a good QB coach but a bad PLAY caller.
    Perhaps the team in 2010 overcame his play calling rather than succeeded because of it. He’s had one good year as OC and more than a year of stubbing his toe. Which is the anomaly?

  6. Jeff Combs says:

    Come on John. Does a throwing QB only go one series playing to his strength then you abandon it cause the cat is out of the bag? Did Tom Brady have just one good passing series in his career? We could have went to the well a lil more than one series. And I’m tired of hearing the standard answer to why we don’t throw the ball downfield… ” We don’t have the personnel” If I was the QB and you were the receiver and we were behind and the run hasn’t worked all day cause Jerry Tipton was too slow and couldn’t hit the hole, I would still tell you to go long. You can’t always be safe and predictable. Especially when playing from behind, which we always are. What do you have to lose by trying something different when mediocrity has again become the norm?

  7. Scott says:

    for me it’s not so much of the three running plays it’s the last one where there were about 9 in the box and we still run the same play…instead of checking out of it and going to a pass play. they knew the run was coming and were stacked up against it. it’s not so much about 3 straight running plays it the running plays should have been changed by the staff on the sidelines. it’s not like he couldn’t complete a pass

  8. Scott says:

    wow, my computer had a moment and duplicated some of my comment…mod’s you can edit or delete it if you want sorry

  9. John Clay says:

    First of all, Jerry Tipton can hit the hole.

    Second of all, it was Towles’ second series, which last three plays. No one said they were abandoning the pass/ The series was dictated by what happened on first down, which was a six-yard run.

  10. Jimmy Johnson says:

    QB sneak was the right call to make and it wasn’t made. Simple as that.

  11. Jeff Combs says:

    Hey Jimmy Johnnson,

    What are you doing for the next few years. Forget Jerry Jones. We could use you.

  12. operationruse says:

    Mr. Clay,
    First off, I would agree with you that bad playcalling in Lexington has become cliche’. I believe on the play in question, the MSU line was in the backfield nearly in time to take the handoff. Now, you may say that UK’s players just got beat, but another perfectly reasonable opinion to hold is that MSU’s players anticipated (knew) what UK was going to do. Maybe we fooled MSU on first down (6 yard gain) and maybe we even fooled them on second down (3 yard gain), but do you really believe MSU was not going to be prepared to try to stop the run on 3rd and one, particularly on that end of the field? If that is the case, do you think that is on the playcaller of the players? Does the playcaller not have any responsibility to be innovative or unpredictable? If not, then why do we use hand signals to send in plays? Why do the coordinators cover their mouths when they are sending in plays? Why don’t we just hold up a big sign telling the other side what we are going to do?
    On the predictability of our playcalling, I would hope you would agree that third down and one from that end of the field was an obvious running down for UK. Do you recall how UK did earlier in the year against Kent State on an obvious running down? Second and goal at the Kent State one yard line. We were stuffed for three straight plays. Turnover on downs. Did our staff really believe that we were going to run the ball down the throat of an MSU team that is allowing less than 4 yards per carry on the season?

  13. John Clay says:

    I would argue that field position played a role in the run on third-and-one.

    If you go back to Towles’ first series, they had a third-and-one at the State 44 and threw that bootleg pass to Shields. Makes sense in that part of the field. If your freshman quarterback makes a poor decision and turns it over, at least it’s in opponent territory. If you throw on 3rd-and-1 from your own 23 and your freshman quarterback makes a mistake and turns it over, you’ve put your defense on the spot. And the defense had already given up 17 points before halftime.

  14. operationruse says:

    Are we seriously to the point when we are patting the team on the back when they get positive yardage on 2 out of 3 plays but still don’t get a first down? We are scared of turning the ball over in our own territory, so you do what the defense expects you to do? Why not just punt on 3rd down. That way, if there is a bad snap we can at least have another shot at it. Another option would be to take a knee on 3rd down, so we don’t risk a fumble.
    I am a little confused about this entire blog post. Do you think that fans should never be critical of play calling? It goes without saying that the playcaller has more knowledge about the details of every play than the fans probably ever will. All we know is the result, but that is hardly the fault of the fans. If the playcaller wants to explain why a particular play worked or did not work, I believe we would be open to hearing that. In this case, Joker gave a somewhat generic explaination and you have essentially said, “see there” as the basis for your opinion that fans are unjustified in criticizing playcalling without providing any additional facts or analysis to back up your premise. Joker has said he had a plan for the play. I don’t doubt that was the case. What the fans are saying is that it was a bad plan. Again, the MSU defense was in the backfield to make the tackle. Doesn’t that tell you that MSU was playing the run? Do you think Randy Sanders would not have called an inside screen if he could have that play over again? Isn’t the object of calling plays for UK be to do what the MSU defense does not expect and is not prepared to defend? Did we suddenly become good enough to line up with MSU, tell them what we are going to do, and then dare them to stop us? To my knowledge, UK is still signaling in plays from the sideline, so I do not think that is the case.

  15. John Clay says:

    “It goes without saying that the playcaller has more knowledge about the details of every play than the fans probably ever will.”

    Then why did you say it, as if it should be ignored?

    So do you think if Kentucky had just called better plays it would have won the game Saturday? Or beaten South Carolina the week before? No problem with criticizing the game plan or the scheme or the production, but have always maintained that the easiest thing for a fan (or sportswriter, for that matter) is to sit back and howl about “Why did they run a third-and-long draw play?”

    I definitely think you can question the third-and-one call. What I object to is the complaint that after Towles had gone five-for-five through the air the previous drive, why did UK go to three straight running plays the next drive?

    If only UK threw it 50 times a game it would win, right? Oh yeah, that didn’t work against Louisville (51) or Western Kentucky (61), did it?

    And my guess is if UK had thrown an incompletion or an interception on the third-and-one in question, fans would have been howling about why Sanders threw the ball on third-and-short.

  16. operationruse says:

    You called out fans for criticizing playcalling. All I was saying with that comment is that the situation dictates that coordinators are and will always necessarily be more “in the know” then us fans. Does that automatically mean that fans can never criticize playcalling? Where do you stand on the goal line call against South Carolina? Think it was wise not to use Cobb in that situation? Just one play, right?

    What is funny to me is that Joker went out of his way to address this one particular play in his luncheon, yet you act like it is only the lunatic fringe that would question the coach’s decision making in that instance. Did a media member ask the question, or did Joker think that it was something that needed to be addressed on his own?

    If your argument is that fans can be overly critical about certain facets of the game, I would absolutely agree with that. Fan = fanatic. I am just not sure that the 3rd and 1 call is the best (or even a good) example of that.

    How are fans taking the “easy way out?” All fan criticism is easy if we want to be honest. I think the issue is whether or not the criticism is valid. You are drawing a pretty thin distinction. Fans can criticize “production” but not playcalling? Unless it is a broken play, isn’t one the result of the other?

    Did I say that UK would have won the game if they had made a different call on the 3rd and 1? Did I say anything about any other games this year? I believe your post was about criticism of playcalling. If you are really interested in my opinion of the top reasons we did not win the MSU game or the other 4 games we lost this year, just let me know. Until then, I will just address the premise you put forth in your post.