Kentucky was 6-3 and yet a 3-point underdog to 4-5 Vanderbilt. Vandy was winless in the SEC while the Cats stood at 3-3 within the conference. There’s disrespect and then there’s the blatant impertinence that Mark Stoops’ and his team sustained during the week leading up to Saturday’s Music City beat-down. In prideful fashion; UK rebounded from a gut-wrenching loss to Ole Miss to enjoy its largest margin of victory in 2017.
Last week was contentious. Sides were taken on the ceiling and path of this football program as well as its methods of game management. No matter which side of the arguments that you agreed with, fan passion is preferred and absolutely ok. Apathy is a program killer (Please refer to Vandy’s demolishment of Joker Phillips’ team a few years back). Even if it was just for one November evening, the Wildcats irrefutably answered faultfinders and did so in a conclusive fashion. The Cats went down 7-0 following a Stephen Johnson fumble but went on to score 34 unanswered points. The 44-21 final score was not indicative of the complete domination between the chalked lines.
Kentucky is now 7-3 on the season and 14-6 over its past 20 games. Saturday’s victory also marks the Wildcat’s seventh SEC win in its last twelve conference matchups. That’s the best stretch since the 1998-99 seasons. These numbers can be considered program growth. Still, this weekend’s rewarding win still stings of the “what might have been” and “strength of schedule” arguments that I may not completely agree with but totally understand those that do.
UK rushed for 232-yards and Benny Snell only had 17 carries. Saturday presented a much needed break for the record-breaking Wildcat that had carried a tremendous load over the past months. Benny Snell is a generational running back. After UK’s win I made the statement that Snell is the best Kentucky running back that I’ve seen in person over the past 40-years. That remark did not come easily. I’ve intentionally overanalyzed the all-timers such as Moe Williams, Mark Higgs, and Sonny Collins for quite some time. Some of the candidates in this discussion are personal friends of mine; so this is not a loose decree. I’m finally comfortable enough to declare Snell as the best. This assertion doesn’t guarantee future success in the short or long term. Merely, my opinion on what I’ve seen throughout his body of work as a Kentucky Wildcat.
Stephen Johnson was resourceful and continued to be a threat with his legs on 3rd down, drive extending plays. However, it is without hesitation that I name John Schlarman’s offensive line as the game’s most valuable player(s). The Wildcat front men have radically improved since center Drake Jackson entered the lineup. Jackson was at times dominant against Vanderbilt. So were guards Logan Stenberg and Bunchy Stallings. Other than four pre-snap procedure penalties, the Kentucky offensive line played its best game of the 2017 season.
For the second consecutive game Kentucky scored on the last drive of the 1st half and the 1st drive of the second totaling 24 points during a two-game stretch. The Commodores had no answers for the UK running game as Eddie Gran’s offense conservatively dropped 44-points on a once lauded Vanderbilt defense. An efficiently balanced and intentional offensive game plan kept Derek Mason off-balance for sixty minutes. There were many plays in which I counted four separate options from which Stephen Johnson could choose. That run/pass multiplicity puts a tremendous amount of stress for opposing defensive coordinators.
-RB Benny Snell broke the school record for most rushing touchdowns in school history (28). Snell is a sophomore and had zero carries in the first three games a year ago.
-Snell is the first Kentucky running back to rush for 1,000-yards in consecutive seasons. He’s totaled 2,104 and is the 9th Wildcat to amass 2,000 rush-yards.
-Kentucky rushed for five touchdowns and 232-yards.
-True freshman Lynn Bowden accounted for 192 all-purpose yards.
-QB Stephen Johnson completed 76.4% of his passes for 195-yards.
-Garrett Johnson’s 149 career catches moved him past Randall Cobb for 5th place in program history.
Offensive Top Performers
|Rushing||Benny Snell 17 carries, 116-yards, 3 TD’s|
|Passing||Stephen Johnson 13/17, 195-yards|
|Receiving||Garrett Johnson 6 catches, 76-yards|
|3rd Down||5/12 (41.6%)|
|Red-Zone||4/4 (100%) 3/4 TD’s|
Five quarterback sacks, four interceptions, and six tackles for loss were indications the defensive line playing their best game of the 2017 season. The organic front three/four established a pass rush which freed up the back seven to defend the pass. It also created havoc vs. the run as Vanderbilt rushed for just 60-yards. Defensive end TJ Carter registered a sack and a tackle for loss. Adrian Middleton’s deflected pass led to a Ware interception. Vanderbilt’s 368 total yards were deceiving as it racked up a large percentage during stat-building time at the end of the contest.
Kentucky outside linebackers excelled. This is odd since star Josh Allen registered one quarterback hurry on the stat sheet. Denzil Ware led the way with three tackles, two sacks and two tackles for loss. True freshman Josh Paschal totaled three tackles, a quarterback sack, and a tackle for loss. Fellow freshman Jamar “Boogie” Watson joined in with three tackles, one quarterback sack, one tackle for loss, and a forced fumble.
The Kentucky secondary has been beaten up lately. Even though its faced several elite passers and pass catchers, allowing 279-yards per game flashed as an apparent team weakness. QB Kyle Shurmur threw for 308-yards but several of those came in the latter portion of the game when the outcome had been long decided. Four interceptions were refreshing since the Cats hadn’t registered a turnover in quite some time.
-Cats produced four interceptions, five quarterback sacks, and six tackles for loss.
|Tackles||Mike Edwards, Jordan Jones, Davonte Robinson-5|
|QB Sacks||Denzil Ware 2|
|Tackles for Loss||Denzil Ware 2|
|Interceptions||Mike Edwards, Derrick Baity, Denzil Ware, Jordan Griffin 1|
|Tackles for Loss||6|
Punter Miles Butler averaged just 38.6 yards per kick but should be complimented for playing well in a difficult situation. Kicker Austin MacGinnis is an all-time great. That’s not an opinion, MacGinnis is the program’s all-time leading scorer. Lynn Bowden nearly had his first kickoff return for a touchdown but was tracked down after traveling 93-yards. Summary; Dean Hood coached a heck of a game and special teams were solid.
What does all this mean?
Kentucky needed this rancorous victory. After a season of nail biters, the Cats and its fans deserved an undoubted win over an SEC opponent. UK has won 7 games in back-to-back season with two more regular season contests remaining. It’s also guaranteed to finish at least .500 in the SEC for the second straight year. Both accomplishments are notable and uncommon.
Sure, it’s easy and understandable to obsess over the Florida and Ole Miss losses and say “what if.” But on Saturday night I choose to celebrate the fact that a resilient and ticked off Kentucky football team traveled to Nashville and played its most complete game of the season. Now, it’s on the Georgia Bulldogs.
Kentucky is 7-3 and a whole heck of a lot of teams are not.