Kentucky football's offense is falling short. Barion Brown, Chris Rodriguez provide hope

Brett Dawson
Louisville Courier Journal

OXFORD, Mississippi — Barion Brown had caught a pair of passes for 81 yards. He’d returned kickoffs for 85 and 54 yards. 

In the seventh-ranked Kentucky football team’s 22-19 loss to No. 14 Ole Miss, the Wildcats’ electric freshman had made plays all over the field. 

But he mostly was focused on the ones he hadn’t. 

“Being a little hard on myself,” Brown said. “Being let down on myself.”

On a day when Kentucky (4-1, 1-1 SEC) needed an offensive jump start, Brown provided it. But the Cats needed points, too. And on that front, the freshman came up short.

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Brown was close to taking two kickoff returns into the end zone — and was tripped up by a teammate on the second. He nearly turned a screen pass into a game-changing late touchdown but was stopped after 51 yards at the Ole Miss 7-yard line by a defender with an angle. 

Three times, Brown was a deep-pass target from quarterback Will Levis. All three narrowly missed. 

“I mean, the big plays (to Brown) have been there all season for us, whether it be on special teams or whether it be in the pass game,” UK coach Mark Stoops said. “And we felt like we had a couple opportunities.”

UK did not lose because of Brown. The Wildcats were good enough defensively to beat Ole Miss on Saturday, even after linebacker Jacquez Jones departed with a foot injury. After looking a step slow early, Kentucky adapted to the Rebels’ up-tempo offense. The defense held Ole Miss to a field goal in the second half. It got the ball back to the offense after Levis’ fumble with 2:55 to play in the game. 

But special teams errors — Mark Ruffolo missed a field goal and had a PAT blocked; another point-after try failed on a bad snap — helped doom UK. So did an offense that wasn’t good enough, that had two fumbles from Levis and a critical penalty on what could have been a go-ahead touchdown. 

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Oct 1, 2022; Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Kentucky Wildcats wide receiver Barion Brown (2) runs after catch during the second half against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

But the hope is that Brown will give Kentucky more moving forward. And that he won't be alone in doing so. 

The return of running back Chris Rodriguez, who was available to play for the first time this season, will help. Rodriguez ran 19 times for 72 yards and a touchdown and caught three passes for 40 yards. 

Those are pedestrian numbers by the senior’s standard. 

But he made some tough runs and caused some tacklers to miss. He picked up some key blocks in the backfield. He created a kind of running threat Kentucky has lacked in his absence this season. 

“It was great having him back,” offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said. “He ran tough. I love him. He’s just got the right mindset. He made a big difference today, and he just has a physicality that you appreciate and value being on the field. He did a nice job today. I wish we could’ve gave him more space to do more.” 

Though Stoops stressed Rodriguez wouldn’t be a savior — and he wasn’t — it was a promising start for a team that badly needs an added offensive dimension. 

Stoops noted Rodriguez powered to a hard-fought yard on a key fourth-and-1, the kind of punishing run that’s “been a little bit of a challenge” so far this season. 

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Oct 1, 2022; Oxford, Mississippi, USA; Kentucky Wildcats running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. (24) runs the ball during the fourth quarter against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

“We wanted a little spark from (Rodriguez), and think it did give us a little bit today,” Stoops said. 

The Cats need more than a little spark offensively. 

And even if Brown’s game keeps expanding and Rodriguez returns to form, Kentucky will need more. Levis has lacked consistency making quick decisions. The Wildcats’ highly touted tight ends have a combined 20 catches and two touchdowns, well short of their anticipated impact in the preseason. 

Mostly, though, UK still needs to be better up front. 

Levis has been sacked 19 times this season, and they’ve been for a variety of reasons. Often, he’s holding the ball too long. Sometimes skill-position players are missing blocks. 

But the Cats’ offensive line has to be better, both in protecting its quarterback and opening holes for Rodriguez and the running game. 

Still, there were some promising signs Saturday. 

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They started with Brown and Rodriguez.

Rodriguez “didn’t seem like he skipped a beat at all” during his four-game absence, Levis said, though Stoops saw more rust, suggesting the running back lacked his “game legs.”

“I don't want to say he's out of shape, but there's just a difference in playing games when you're amped up,” Stoops said. 

Brown, too, has room to improve. He’s growing weekly into a more compete receiver, but he “just missed” on a deep ball from Levis in the fourth quarter that could have tilted the game. Brown will “continue to work on that,” Stoops said. 

But he’s just getting started, and Brown’s ceiling looks high. 

It’s unclear if the offense as a whole has so much room for growth. 

If Kentucky is to have the kind of season it hopes to have, it’ll have to find out soon. 

“We know we’ve got things to work on, things to do,” Brown said. “We really weren’t too much down on ourselves because we know we can still reach the goals we have set. Just come ready to work Monday.” 

Reach Louisville men’s basketball reporter Brett Dawson and bdawson@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @BDawsonWrites.