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Mark Story: What comparing Rich Scangarello’s Kentucky offense to Liam Coen’s tells us. And what it doesn’t.

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Mark Stoops, head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats, at a game against the Youngstown Penguins at Kroger Field on Sept. 17, 2022, in Lexington, Kentucky.

Mark Stoops, head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats, at a game against the Youngstown Penguins at Kroger Field on Sept. 17, 2022, in Lexington, Kentucky. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images/TNS)

LEXINGTON, Ky. — For the Kentucky football offense, it is go time.

With the heart of the SEC schedule looming, the Kentucky attack needs to take a big step upward starting with Saturday night’s non-league tilt with Mid-American Conference favorite Northern Illinois at Kroger Field.

UK’s felt-urgency was on display Monday at Mark Stoops’ weekly news conference as the Kentucky head man looked back, not fondly, at the offensive performance in last week’s 31-0 win over Youngstown State.

“Offensively, there are some things that we have to get ironed out,” Stoops said. “(Against Youngstown State), it just felt like there was a person here, a person there, just undisciplined play. Anytime you have 10 penalties, three turnovers, four fumbles, and you do that at home, it just shows you that that attention to detail was not there.”

If you feel like Kentucky’s offensive performance through the first quarter of the 2022 season has not matched what the Wildcats did in the same time frame in 2021, you are right.

Yet comparing new Wildcats offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello’s 2022 offensive numbers with old offensive coordinator Liam Coen’s 2021 performance comes with two major caveats.

First the numbers: Through the first three games of this season, Kentucky is averaging 74.3 yards a game rushing, 294 yards passing, 368.3 yards in total offense, 63.7 plays and 31.3 points.

Last year through three contests, UK was averaging 196 yards a game rushing, 284 yards passing, 480 yards in total offense, 66.3 plays and 36 points.

There are, however, two mitigating factors in evaluating those numbers.

Thanks to a combination of advantageous special teams plays, short fields set up by the UK defense and two non-offensive touchdowns, the 2022 Kentucky offense has not had as much opportunity to put up yardage numbers as the 2021 attack had.

Through the first three games with Scangarello, the ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks coach, calling the plays, Kentucky has had 34 offensive drives.

Of those, eight have started on the opponents’ side of the 50-yard line.

This season, Kentucky has scored on a 100-yard kickoff return (Barion Brown vs. Miami) and on a 65-yard pick-six (Keidron Smith vs. Florida). UK has also had an 8-yard TD drive (set up by a Smith fumble recovery vs. Miami) and a 6-yard TD drive (set up by a Jordan Wright interception return vs. Florida).

Conversely, last season, in the one year Coen, the current Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator, spent calling the plays for UK, the Wildcats had 36 offensive drives in their first three contests.

Of those, only two started on the opponents’ side of the field.

Tyrell Ajian’s 95-yard interception return vs. Chattanooga in last season’s third game was the only non-offensive touchdown Kentucky scored in last year’s first quarter of the season.

Obviously, having more short fields and non-offensive touchdowns has been a boon for the No. 8 Cats (3-0, 1-0 SEC) in 2022. But it leaves fewer drives and fewer yards available for the offense to amass.

Through three games, the 2022 Cats have also faced better competition than did the 2021 team in its opening quarter of the season.

This year, UK has played: 1.) Miami (Ohio), the preseason favorite to win the MAC East Division; 2.) at Florida; 3.) Youngstown State, the No. 23-ranked team in the FCS.

Last year, UK played: 1.) ULM, a team that had gone winless the season before; 2.) Missouri; 3.) Chattanooga, the No. 22-ranked team in the FCS.

What Kentucky backers need to hope is that Scangarello’s first offense fares better in the middle section of the schedule than did Coen’s. From games three through eight last season, UK averaged only 307.8 yards and 22.7 points a game.

It was in the final four regular-season games of 2021 — vs. Tennessee, at Vanderbilt, vs. New Mexico State and at Louisville — when Coen’s offense took flight. UK averaged 560.8 yards and 46 points a contest in those four games.

That late-season surge came against the teams that finished No. 84 (Louisville), No. 99 (Tennessee), No. 118 (Vanderbilt) and No. 127 (New Mexico State) in the country in total defense.

This year, Kentucky is better at quarterback than a year ago with Levis in his second season as a starter. Once star ball carrier Christopher Rodriguez returns from suspension at Mississippi in week five, UK should be as good at running back as it was in 2021.

While there is no individual star the magnitude of Wan’Dale Robinson, Kentucky’s overall wide receiving corps is more talented this year. In the tight end room, there is more depth in 2022 than in 2021.

Moving forward, the question that will determine how Scangarello’s first UK offense — and, likely, Kentucky’s 2022 season — ultimately fares remains whether a fully reconstructed offensive line can reach a consistent level of competence.

Of his team’s offensive front, Stoops simply says, “We have to continue to improve.”

Because it is go time.

©2022 Lexington Herald-Leader. Visit kentucky.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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