Southern Miss outgained the Kentucky 364 yards to 254. Benny Snell was held to 67 yards on the ground and sported a lowly 3.4 yards per carry average. Why was Snell in the Wildcat so often on 1st and 3rd downs? The vaunted UK offensive line failed to open the gaping run-lanes that the BBN had grown accustomed to a year ago. Eddie Gran called a conservative game. All these sentiments were communicated with me over the course of the game.
Following UK’s 24-17 win my answer remained constant, “There is no such thing as an ugly road win.” This Southern Miss team not only beat the Cats a year ago; it did so in an all-out butt-kicking fashion in the second half.
Think about it for a minute. How many Kentucky Football teams in the past would have folded after playing subpar at best on offense with its defense forced into precarious situations in the final quarter of the game with the outcome hinging on momentum that totally favored the opponent? True, Kentucky did not wow in Hattiesburg; but it was impressive enough to move to 1-0. That’s a whole heck of a lot better than where Mark Stoop’s team started in 2016 after facing the Golden Eagles. Let’s break it down, shall we?
|Total Offense||254 yards|
|Time of possession||29:01|
Passing: Stephen Johnson – 11/20, 176 yards, 1 TD
Rushing: Benny Snell – 20 carries, 67 yards
Receiving: CJ Conrad – 3 receptions, 97 yards, 1 TD
The common theme all week was that this game would be decided by the team that won the turnover margin. UK did so. But, Benny Snell’s red-zone fumble marked the first occasion that the Cats left points on the Hattiesburg turf. It happened again when Stephen Johnson failed to hit Tavin Richardson on an intermediate crossing route in Southern Miss territory on 3rd and 8. The third occasion occurred in the second half when a holding call joined a sack took Kentucky out of scoring position. Field position favored UK on many occasions. It failed to capitalize.
A plethora of three and outs were also a dysfunctional byproduct of ineffectiveness up front. This is portrayed in the fact that UK ran just 55 offensive plays; five more than it did a year ago in the 44-35 loss. Third down conversions were dreadful: 3/13. That low number lessens drives which in turn equates to a low number of plays.
One positive was TE CJ Conrad. The junior caught 3 passes for 97-yards and a score. Johnson was accurate with his tight end which was a source of malcontent in 2016. Stephen Johnson was not flashy but did account for 176 of UK’s 254 total yards. That’s 69% if my math’s correct. He finished the game 11-20 with one score running and one through the air. He’s also won three out of UK’s last four road games. Say what you want; but with a struggling running game, UK would have been in trouble against Southern Miss if not for Johnson’s output.
The offensive line was allegedly the strength of the entire team, not just the offense. That was not the case against Southern Miss. Jay Hopson’s “Havoc” defense fit that description on Saturday. It aligned in defensive sets that were so uncommon and unconventional that assigning a schematic name was impossible. He also creatively twisted, stunted, and placed his safeties in specific and intentional run-support locations. USM was intent on stopping Benny Snell. UK played into that theme by continuing to run Snell in the Wildcat formation when it was not producing positive results. QB Stephen Johnson was taken out of the equation on many plays which limited offensive possibilities.
I do think that offensive inefficiencies are fixable and will be corrected. However, I was surprised that AJ Rose was not involved in the run game. Personnel changes could be on the horizon as the Cats prepare for Eastern Kentucky. Do not push the panic button yet.
|Total Yards Allowed||364|
|1st downs allowed||19|
|Forced fumbles||4, recovered 3|
|Tackles for Loss||8|
Courtney Love: 9 total tackles, 1 TFL
Darius West: 6 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 forced fumble
Adrian Middleton: 5 tackles,
Josh Allen and Denzil Ware: 8 tackles, 2 QB sacks, 4.5 TFL, 2 forced fumbles, 1 touchdown
Stopping Ito Smith was a rallying cry throughout the entire summer. The Wildcat defense did so by allowing the senior just 37 yards off 16 carries. He did have 9 catches for 78 yards but he never presented an imminent threat for four quarters. We talked for weeks about the USM talented receiving corps; they didn’t disappoint. Korey Robertson caught 7 passes for 111 yards and 2 touchdowns. Quez Watkins had 4 catches for 103 yards. USM’s top two pass catchers surprisingly weren’t as impactful: Allenzae Staggers 0 catches and Isaiah Jones had 2 receptions for 17 yards. However, these four receivers construct one of the better groups that UK will face in 2017. It also won several 50/50 balls which will certainly infuriate Mark Stoops.
Overall the defense fought and showed tremendous resolve. This showed true as momentum flipped and the Cats forced its opponent to punt late in the fourth quarter and held in the game’s final drive. New DL coach Derrick LeBlanc’s impact was obvious as his defensive line played their butts off:
|Adrian Middleton||5 tackles, 1 solo|
|Matt Elam||4 tackles, 2 solo, 1 TFL|
|Calvin Taylor||4 tackles, 1 solo|
|Kengera Daniel||2 tackles, 2 solos|
|Kordell Looney||2 tackles|
|TJ Carter||2 tackles|
|Quinton Bohanna||1 tackle|
|Naquez Pringle||1 tackle|
This improvement as can be seen in the above stat line is an incredible upgrade from past year’s performances. The front-line was active, disruptive, and engaged blockers at a level not seen in quite some time.
Outside linebackers Josh Allen and Denzil Ware are special. Fellow OLB Josh Paschal showed flashes of joining the duo to construct a formidable edge force. Overall, the UK defense was faster and obviously deeper at all positions on the field. It did begin to miss tackles in the fourth quarter which was a result of its offensive brethren giving it no breaks by stringing together a slew of short drives.
Safety Darius West led the secondary with 6 tackles, 1 TFL, and 1 forced fumble. He’s battled back from injuries and the BBN was extremely proud of his efforts.
Punter Matt Panton had 9 punts, averaged 42 yards per, and booted 5 kicks inside the 20-yard line to include two inside the 2. The grad-transfer made his presence known in his first game action as a Kentucky Wildcat. His play was refreshing and motivating as punting was a critical question and shortcoming in 2016.
Chuck Walker’s stat line won’t jump off the pages but the sure handed senior caught several punts in heavy traffic. Safety was key in a game that was significantly decided by the turnover margin. Sihiem King also flashed in the kick-return game.
What does all this mean?
Kentucky won the game 24-17. It’s 1-0 with EKU coming to Kroger Field next Saturday. No road win can be considered ugly, especially against a team that beat UK by 9 a year before. There’s no sugar coating the truth. Saturday’s game was not pleasant to the eyes especially when the Cats had the football. But, the defense fought back. Special teams were excellent. Did I mention that Kentucky is 1-0? If my memory is correct it was 0-1 after playing the same team it beat on Saturday this time last year.