Kentucky Wildcats' "selfless" mindset has fueled offensive transformation

It's safe to say that no one sitting in the locker room at halftime of Kentucky's season opener could have envisioned the twists and turns that the Wildcats' season would take from that point moving forward.

Kentucky led Southern Miss 35-17 and appeared to be rolling toward a decisive victory on the strength of Drew Barker's right arm and some explosive plays from the Cats' receiving corps, which had accounted for almost 300 yards through the air and four touchdowns. 

The "Air Raid" was officially back in Lexington. Or so we thought.

The Cats wound up getting blanked in the second half, losing that game 44-35, losing its starting quarterback to injury two weeks later, and basically starting over from scratch on the offensive side of the ball with a 1-2 record and the heart of the SEC schedule looming.

Fast-forward six weeks.

Kentucky brings a 5-3 record into this week's game against Georgia and the Cats occupy second place in the SEC East thanks to a punishing ground attack that currently ranks fifth in the league and 30th nationally at 219.5 yards per game.

Last week, UK plowed through the Missouri defense for 377 yards rushing in a 35-21 road win. It marked the third consecutive league game that the Cats topped 250 yards rushing.

So how did this transformation from pass-happy to smashmouth take place in such a short period of time? 

During Wednesday's SEC coaches teleconference, UK head coach Mark Stoops credited the character of his team, particularly the players whose roles have changed to help place the Cats in a position to reach their first bowl game since 2010.

"It's something that we talk about all the time, being selfless," Stoops said. "That's not always the easiest trait to get accomplished within a football team because we've got some very competitive guys, guys who want to make plays for their team."

Like a Jeff Badet, who leads the SEC at 24.8 yards per catch and, if he looked back to halftime on Sept. 3, would have rationally expected to have more than 20 receptions entering Week 9. Or a C.J. Conrad, a preseason All-American candidate at tight end who now has 13 catches for 196 yards. Or perhaps Dorian Baker, last year's leading receiver, who, thanks in part to an injury that cost him half of this season, currently has only four catches.

"We've got some very talented wide receivers, and they've been called upon to do quite a bit of blocking," Stoops said. "We've made our fair share of big catches and big plays in the pass game, but it takes that selfless attitude and team-first mentality to go downfield and be aggressive in our blocking, finishing off blocks.

"We've been very good and very selfless with that and with our approach to blocking and springing big plays. You wouldn't get as many big runs if those guys aren't down there doing that."

The UK boss also noted the important of film study and never taking a play off, a process that has gradually improved as the season -- and wins -- have advanced.

The main beneficiaries have been junior running back Boom Williams, who leads the team and ranks third in the SEC with 821 yards rushing, and freshman breakout star Benny Snell, who ranks seventh in the league with 661 yards despite playing only six games. Last week, they became only the second SEC duo in the last 10 years to each top the 175-yard rushing mark in a league game.

Afterward, they were the first to praise the UK offensive line and receivers.

"Whatever it takes to win," junior receiver Garrett Johnson said after a recent UK practice session. "Getting that win is the only thing that matters."

"A group effort," Stoops said. "The whole team trying to be very selfless and play for each other."

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