Kentucky had been outgained 1066 yards to 558 this time last season. It had also been outscored 89-42 and was sitting at 0-2 with New Mexico State looming in the shadows. The offensive line was a major question mark after being dominated by a group of shoulder chipped Golden Eagles and demolished in the Swamp by a gathering of future Gator pros. Touchdowns and the defensive line were all but nonexistent for six quarters of football. The buzzards were circling; media and fans were irritable. Critical comments and complaints surrounding the Wildcat football program flooded social media, call in shows, and all other means of modern communication.
After its first two games of 2017 the Wildcats are 2-0 after beating Eastern Kentucky 27-16 on Saturday. On the drive home from the stadium I experienced what can only be described as a déjà vu moment. Postgame call in shows, social media, and other modern means of communication were flooded with queries and understandable concerns surrounding the football Cats. Expectation is a son of a gun isn’t it?
After UK opened the game with a drive that resulted in an Austin MacGinnis field goal, a talented group of transfers and players that felt shunned by their home-state university outplayed the Cats for a quarter and a half. In plain terms, EKU kicked the Cats’ butts through passion and executed its game plan to perfection. In a strange twist of emotions, I was actually proud of our southern neighbors. Everybody likes an underdog don’t they? It even celebrated at the end of the first quarter as if it had just won the OVC title. I don’t blame them at all for that by the way. Unlike two years ago, at no point in the game did I feel that Kentucky would lose. Call that the Stephen Johnson Effect if you’d like, or not.
But, those boorishly clamoring for a quarterback change got their wish when Drew Barker supplanted Stephen Johnson in the 2nd quarter. At the time, Johnson was 7-9 for 30 yards and had 2 rushes for 23. Barker’s series ended with him completing 1 pass out of 2 and being sacked twice. Unsuccessful drives were not all Barker’s fault. Johnson classily supported his teammate’s playing time. The senior didn’t sulk about his time on the bench. He calmly reentered the game and completed 68% of his passes and accounted for two touchdowns. Let’s dive deeper, shall we?
Surprisingly, the Cats outgained its opponent 436 yards to 318. It also surpassed EKU in 1st downs 22-17. The feel of the game doesn’t match the data. Benny Snell exceeded the century mark after sustaining a rib injury early in the game. Sihiem King was shifty and powerfully ran behind his pads for a running back that weighs less than 180 pounds. Both Snell and King did not receive a great deal of help from their offensive line early in the game.
Matter of fact, the point of most malcontent stems from the offensive line of scrimmage. I underestimated the difficulty in replacing Jon Toth and Cole Mosier. Their loss has caused obvious distress. Both were leaders, team-first locker room influences, and very good at their jobs. Guard Nick Haynes was forced to start the game at center due to center turned guard turned back to center Bunchy Stallings’ injury sustained against Southern Miss. Difficult sentence to understand right? Well, that’s kinda how perplexing it has been to mix and match healthy five offensive linemen in UK’s first two games. What once was a team strength has morphed into a makeshift Rubik’s Cube-like series of personnel combinations. However, in the second half, the group seemed to click when Stallings returned center which allowed Haynes to move back to his natural position at guard. UK Football from 2016 was back for a string of series.
CJ Conrad continues to be a dangerous weapon and has now scored a touchdown in back-to-back games. The formerly maligned receiver Blake Bone had his best day in Lexington and provided offensive coordinator Eddie Gran a spark with a 43-yard catch. Bone’s height advantage over the EKU secondary paid dividends for the senior receiver. The offense seemed confident with Johnson behind the center and the running game rolling which opened up the play action pass.
Quarterback Stephen Johnson wins games. Period. Those Ws may not be a thing of beauty, but his winning percentage is entering rarely charted waters when compared to historical Wildcat signal callers. He also proved to be dangerous while running the football as his scamper in the end zone was a game changing play. However, for the second straight week the offense continued to be its own worst enemy. Bad snaps, penalties, and untimely errors coupled with difficulties along the offensive line produced what some would describe as an offensive clunker. However, I refer you back to the stats. Kentucky rushed and passed for over 200 yards. That could be considered a balanced game. Furthermore, it didn’t endure a single turnover for the first time in two seasons.
I’m not going to sugar coat the obvious. There are several areas that require drastic improvement as SEC play begins against the vastly improved South Carolina Gamecocks. EKU deserves a tremendous amount of credit. Cliché warning, but like I said a week ago: if 2016 taught me anything, it is to take the 12-game season one game at a time. The OL was horrifically bad this time a year ago. I don’t think the ceiling is as high with this unit as was with last year’s; but improvement is a possibility. That goes for every position group under Eddie Gran’s control.
|Passing||Stephen Johnson||15/22, 224 yds, 1 TD|
|Rushing||Benny Snell||19 carries, 103 yds|
|Receiving||Blake Bone||3 rec, 93 yds, 1 TD|
On the Depth Chart Podcast I tried to warn folks about all those EKU transfers, in particular QB Tim Boyle as well as receivers Neiko Creamer and Ryan Markush. Those two receivers can flat out play the game of football and earned the respect of the Wildcat defenders and the BBN in attendance. EKU’s game plan was to freeze the UK pass rushers through play-action and rely upon short-to-intermediate passes to move the chains. It succeeded.
Boyle and fellow QB Austin Scott were accurate and released the football in a timely manner. Couple that with the play-action motion and UK registered just one sack and three tackles for loss. Much like with the offense, a look back at the stat-line doesn’t match the game’s feel inside the stadium. The vibe was that Eastern rolled up 500 total yards and mastered time of possession. But the secondary were efficient tacklers and UK actually possessed the football for 31:28 compared to EKU’s 28:32. From first glimpse it would appear that the defensive line took a minor step back from its performance in Hattiesburg. But again, the stat sheet reads differently. In fact, its opponent only rushed for 62 net yards although the pass rush could have presented more of a threat even if EKU’s game plan was to take away that element of its game.
Safety Darius West led the team with 11 tackles. Josh Allen registered 8 with a QB sack. EKU finished the day 6/14 on 3rd down. The defensive wasn’t extraordinary by any means of the imagination, nor was it awful. Mike Edwards’ interception was a huge play in the game. Matt House has a great deal of work to do prior to traveling to South Carolina. Much like its offensive counterparts, the defense will be a continuous developmental project for the next 10 weeks. Lots and lots of 1st timers are registering clock. One positive for the defensive coordinator was facing an accurate quarterback in Tim Boyle, WRs Markush and Creamer to go along with that exceptional group of Southern Miss pass catchers. South Carolina’s QB and WR combinations will obviously present a much more difficult challenge.
|Scoring||Allowed 16 points|
|QB Sacks||Josh Allen||1|
|Tackles for Loss||Josh Allen/Lonnie Johnson||1|
Special teams are not a sexy topic unless its overly tremendous or spectacularly unsuccessful. I’d evaluate Saturday’s performance at a C or just average. Austin MacGinnis’ kickoffs were short and possessed very little hang time. This presented the kickoff team with a precarious situation that resulted in favorable field position for the Colonels after it averaged over 35 yards per return. He also missed a 48-yard field goal prior to halftime. Punter Matt Panton was solid by averaging 38.8 yards per kick with one placed inside the twenty-yard line. Again, wasn’t awful; but wasn’t spectacular. The Cats MUST be near perfect to beat South Carolina. The Gamecocks have excelled in this phase.
What does all this mean?
Kentucky is 2-0. It wasn’t impressive or overbearing but a win is a win. Got to give credit to EKU, again. Expect a more detailed review of this game in Monday’s After Action Review.