Kentucky moved to 5-1 on the season and 12-4 over its last 16 regular games with a gutty victory with a banged up depth chart against an inferior opponent. My concern all week was that the Mizzou offense and all that talent would “wake up;” it did so in a big way by amassing 568 total yards and exceeding its scoring average by 9-points.
Most wanted to see more offense after the Cats scored just 24 points against Eastern Michigan a week ago (Who has a much better defense than Missouri by the way; not talent wise, but in relation to execution). Eddie Gran’s unit answered by totaling 486-yards and hanging 40 on the Tigers. It arguably left another 21 on the Kroger Field turf.
Full disclosure; Missouri was allowing 40-points per game so let’s keep Saturday’s offensive performance in perspective. But, did you know that Kentucky has won 8 of its last 10 home games? There was a sense of testiness following Saturday’s win. But; perspective.
The defense struggled. Missouri is to be credited for its offensive game plan which all but negated UK’s key pass rushers: OLB’s Josh Allen and Denzil Ware.
The Tigers were assisted by a sketchy pass defense and that’s being kind. Of its three long touchdown passes, one was a schematic flaw which matched up linebacker Courtney Love on Mizzou’s top pass catcher Johnathon Johnson that resulted in a 75-yard pitch and catch for six points. J’Mon Moore’s 50-yard score was a result of a great throw from quarterback Drew Lock that was perfectly placed behind the cornerback and in front of the safety in a Cover 2 look.
Hey, football happens. Sometimes the bad guys win. The third came when WR Emmanuel Hall just flat-out ran past the cornerback on a go route to the end zone at the end of the first half.
Missouri’s offensive line was rated as one of the SEC’s top 5 going into 2017. It played so on Saturday night as the Tigers rushed for 213 net yards against a Wildcat defense that was allowing just 74 per game. Kentucky had not faced two dynamic runners on the same team like Ish Witter and Damarea Crockett. Crockett was the foremost concern but it was Witter who ran for 139-yards off 17 carries for an average of 8.2 per.
Yet another game was decided with the opposing team possessing the football in the game’s final drive with the contest in doubt. Mark Stoops’ decision to kick a field goal on 4th and goal at the 2-yard line late in the fourth quarter was the right call and forced Mizzou into scoring a touchdown and an extra point for the win with just over a minute to play with no timeouts.
Kentucky won the football game 40-34. Its 5-1 going into a necessary break in action to heal up, clean up, and develop a run game. Now let’s dive deeper:
Hello Drake Jackson
The redshirt freshman center played the majority of offensive plays and more than held his own against future pro defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr. Jackson’s snaps were accurate and he was a key blocker in several of the Cats explosive plays. Plainly, given the status of the Mizzou defensive line; Drake Jackson played his guts out. Having the rookie solidify that position frees up Bunchy Stallings to move back to guard, a position that he played at a high level in 2016. Perhaps Jackson’s performance could be a step forward in answering offensive line questions. Time will tell.
Johnson to Johnson
See the first sentence of this post. Kentucky is 12-4 in its past 16 regular season games with Stephen Johnson at quarterback. The senior was 22/36 (61.1%), 298-yards, 2 touchdowns, and was intercepted once. He also rushed the football for 44-yards off 11 carries; many of which were drive extenders. I don’t know how others evaluate quarterbacks but I’d describe his game as solid, motivational, gutty, and indispensable. Remember, Johnson is also beat up and has taken several shots over the course of six games.
Senior receiver Garrett Johnson led the team with 7 receptions for 111 yards and 1 score. Juice has proven time and time again to be UK’s go-to pass catcher during critical 3rd down plays. He’s also continuing to climb the program’s record books in several receiving categories.
The Receivers and the Emergence of Lynn Bowden
I said in the preseason that the receivers would be better in 2017 than it was a year ago. I stand by that statement. Kayaune Ross played his best game as a Wildcat with 4 catches for 77 yards. The resurrection of Blake Bone continued as the senior grabbed 3 passes for 30-yards including a touchdown. True freshman Lynn Bowden’s route running has drastically improved. A specific instance impressed as he executed a flawless three-move corner route for a catch. He’s starting to understand the position. Bowden finished the game with 3 receptions for 49-yards and had one explosive play called back due to penalty. The BBN got a glimpse of his special playmaking abilities with spectacular runs after catch. There was a dropped potential touchdown on a post route. UK cannot afford missed touchdown opportunities especially in a season that scoring points and connecting on explosive plays have proven to be a challenge.
Kentucky Can’t Deliver the Knockout Punch
Cornerback Derrick Baity, “I think our instinct to destroy an opponent, we don’t really have it. We’ll jump out on them and it’s good, but we’re not consistent enough to keep going on them…. We’re letting up ourselves. We’re getting complacent once we take a good lead and I think that’s why it’s coming down to the wire.”
Up 13-0, which could have easily been 21-0 with more efficiency in the Red-Zone; Missouri was ready to quit. UK didn’t oblige when Lock hit J’Mon Moore down the sideline for a touchdown strike. Up 20-7, the Cats allowed its opponent back into self-esteem land by giving up a 58-yard TD pass with :40 prior to halftime. This was reminiscent of Southern Miss-2016.
Quarterback Stephen Johnson, “It’s just execution on our side, putting the game out of reach. That’s something we have to work on this Bye Week and the following week after that get it all together.”
Benny Went Back Over 100 and into the End Zone
Snell’s night included 117-yards off 20 carries and two touchdowns. That involves a 71-yard scamper to pay dirt. The sophomore averaged 5.8 tough yards for the game. Reality is that he’s not gotten the same level of offensive line support as he did a year ago when he rushed for over 1,000-yards. But seeing him break a 71-yarder had to be considered encouraging. Another positive was seeing Stephen Johnson go under center to hand off to Snell for a touchdown. He looked comfortable in that role.
Austin MacGinnis is the Kentucky G.O.A.T
The senior kicker became the program’s all-time leading scorer with 314-points. MacGinnis made all four of his field goals and four extra points, totaling 16 for the night. The 16 points tied his career high for a game and is the second-most points for a kicker in one game in school history. He also became the first player in school history with three career field goals of at least 53 yards.
Pass Defense Deficiencies
That’s been covered throughout this post. Starting cornerbacks Derrick Baity and Chris Westry have both battled injuries. Not an excuse, but relevant. Depth must continue be developed at that position. Safeties Darius West and Mike Edwards have both played an enormous amount of snaps through six games. But, the trend of surrendering explosive plays through the air is alarming. Missouri QB Drew Lock was the SEC’s 2nd rated passer entering Saturday’s contest. We knew that the Missouri receivers averaged 15 yards-per-catch which ranks high nationally. J’Mon Moore was averaging 26 yards-per-catch entering Saturday. However, giving up homerun grabs for points has to stop or at least slow.
Kentucky entered the game 3rd in the nation by allowing just 74 rush yards per game. Missouri gashed the Cats for 213. Missed tackles again reared its ugly head. But, give credit to Missouri and that mammoth offensive line for opening running lanes for RB’s Ish Witter and Damarea Crockett. Preseason All SEC tackle Paul Adams was excellent. The running backs ran through arm tackles. Mizzou won the line-of-scrimmage for the better part of sixty minutes.
What does all this mean?
Simple; UK is 5-1 going into the bye week. I may have been wrong with my assessment that the 2017 schedule was more challenging than 2016. But, there are teams left on the slate that are very Missouri-like. This means that even though records and recent results aren’t extraordinary; there are still very talented individual players and especially quarterbacks remaining in the back half of the season. Saturday’s pass defense didn’t exactly sanction confidence. This team has simply found ways to win.
The first half of the season has produced a heartbreaking nightmare against Florida, impressive road wins at South Carolina and Southern Miss, two ho-hum home wins over EKU and EMU, and a scarier than necessary victory over Missouri. As we are at the halfway point in the season; I think most would have taken 5-1 going into the bye week and labeled that outcome as a success. Style points don’t count in football. At the end of the season only W’s and L’s matter. Right now Mark Stoops’ team sits at 5-1 and a whole bunch of teams across the nation are not.