LEXINGTON, Ky. — The time has come for the Kentucky football offense.

With the heart of the SEC schedule approaching, Kentucky’s offense should take a big step up starting Saturday night in a non-league matchup with Mid-American Conference favorite Northern Illinois at Kroger Field.

UK’s urgency was on display Monday at Mark Stoops’ weekly press conference, when the Kentucky head coach looked back, not fondly, on the offensive play in last week’s 31-0 win over Youngstown State.

“Unfortunately, there are some things we have to iron out,” Stoops said. “(Against Youngstown State) it just felt like it was a man here, a man there, just an undisciplined game. Any time you have 10 penalties, three turnovers, four fumbles and you do it at home, it just shows you that attention to detail wasn’t there.”

If you feel like Kentucky’s offensive performance in the first quarter of the 2022 season doesn’t match what the Wildcats did in the same period in 2021, you’d be right.

However, comparing the offensive numbers of new Wildcats offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello in 2022 to those of old offensive coordinator Liam Cohen in 2021 has two major caveats.

First the numbers: Through the first three games this season, Kentucky has averaged 74.3 yards rushing, 294 yards passing, 368.3 yards of total offense, 63.7 carries and 31.3 points.

In three contests last year, UK averaged 196 yards rushing, 284 passing yards, 480 yards of total offense, 66.3 carries and 36 scores per game.

However, there are two mitigating factors in estimating these numbers.

Thanks to a combination of good special teams play, short fields created by UK’s defense and two non-offensive touchdowns, Kentucky’s 2022 offense didn’t have as many opportunities to put up yards as the 2021 offense.

In the first three games with Scangarello, the former quarterbacks coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Kentucky had 34 offensive rushes.

Eight of them started on the opposing side of the 50-yard line.

Kentucky has scored on kickoffs of 100 yards (Barion Brown vs. Miami) and 65 yards (Kaidron Smith vs. Florida) this season. UK also had an 8-yard TD drive (set up by Smith on a fumble recovery vs. Miami) and a 6-yard TD drive (set up by Jordan Wright on an interception vs. Florida).

By contrast, last season, the one year that Cohen, now the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive coordinator, spent calling plays for UK, the Wildcats had 36 snaps through the first three contests.

Only two of them started on the opponents’ side.

Tyrell Ajian’s 95-yard interception against Chattanooga in Game 3 of last season was the only non-offensive touchdown scored by Kentucky in the first quarter of last season.

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

In three games, the 2022 Cats also faced better competition than the 2021 team in the first quarter of the season.

This year, UK played: 1.) Miami (OH), the preseason favorite to win the MAC East Division; 2.) in Florida; 3.) Youngstown State, the #23 team in the FCS.

Last year, UK played: 1.) ULM, a winless team from the previous season; 2.) Missouri; 3.) Chattanooga, the #22 team in the FCS.

Kentucky supporters have to hope that Scangarello’s first offense does better in the middle part of the schedule than Cohen. In games three through eight last season, UK averaged just 307.8 yards and 22.7 points per game.

It came in the final four games of the 2021 regular season — against Tennessee, Vanderbilt, New Mexico and Louisville — when Cohen started the offense. UK has averaged 560.8 yards and 46 points per contest in those four games.

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

Kentucky is better at quarterback this year than it was a year ago with Lewis as the starter in his second season. With All-Star running back Christopher Rodriguez returning from a layoff in Mississippi in Week 5, UK should be as good at running back as it has been in 2021.

While Kentucky doesn’t have an individual star of the magnitude of Van’Dale Robinson, Kentucky’s overall roster is more talented this year. There is more depth in the tight end room in 2022 than in 2021.

Looking ahead, the question that will ultimately determine how Scangarello’s first offense at UK — and likely the 2022 season at Kentucky — is whether a completely rebuilt offensive line can reach a consistent level of competence.

Of his team’s offensive front, Stoops simply says, “We’ve got to keep getting better.”

Because it’s time to go.

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