In Saturday’s 62-42 victory versus New Mexico State, I saw a lot of things from the Cats. I saw good things, and not so good things. I saw things I hope we build on for the rest of the season, and things I pray I never see again. But one thing that I saw stood out above the rest – I’m talking about RESILIENCY, the ability to bounce back in the face of adversity. Sure it was against an inferior team, but I saw a Kentucky team that refused to just lay down and die like I have seen them do repeatedly in the past. Like Rocky, the Cats kept getting back up off the mat and fighting another round, until they ultimately pulled out their first win of the season.
Take the defense as exhibit A. The first half was horrific – UK gave up 35 on around 350 yards of offense to a pretty bad offensive opponent that was without its best player. There was chaos and confusion on just about every snap, as the Cats were rarely set when the Aggies snapped the ball. There were blown coverages, missed assignments, and two trick play TD’s for the opponent. But then in the second half, we finally showed some intestinal fortitude. The coaches apparently made what were their first ever half time adjustments, and the second half results improved markedly. There were far fewer instances where the on-field Cats appeared disorganized. UK only gave up two drives of any length in round 2, holding NM State to around 150 yards of offense, 9 first downs, 2 of 6 converting third downs, and 7 points after intermission. Instead of quitting, the defense – coaches and players – made adjustments and bounced back. The defense was resilient.
The offense too showed a new sense of resolve. The offense performed pretty well the entire game, but showed much more poise than we had seen at any point this season – maybe at any point in Stoops’ tenure. The defense wasn’t stopping anybody in the first half, yet time and again the offense came out kept us alive by driving the length of the field and scoring. Then when we had the lead the offense kept making plays. We were focused, efficient, and gritty. Contrast that to the Southern Miss loss, when once the train came off the tracks for the defense there was also a complete meltdown for the offensive unit. Saturday, the offense was resilient.
Stephen Johnson’s stats were impressive for sure, but the most impressive thing about his performance to me was his command of the team. He took convincing control of the huddle and made every play that needed to be made. I can’t really explain it other than to say that he had “the look” in his eye – Johnson looked like a leader that others wanted to follow. Benny Snell essentially said as much after the game. The porous first half defense gave him every opportunity to wilt under pressure, but Stephen Johnson instead showed confidence and leadership. Johnson was resilient.
Same goes for UK’s offensive line. After massively under-performing the first two game this season, this group did what you are supposed to do to a smaller, outclassed team – they dominated them. The running game was as good as we’ve seen in Lexington in a LONG time. They could have hung their heads and thrown in the towel after six abysmal quarters, but instead they went to work and got the job done. The UK offensive line was resilient.
Heck, even Drew’s boy Charles Walker showed moxie. He made a huge mistake in the first half, fumbling a punt to set up a New Mexico State TD. But then in the fourth quarter, he scored the Cats’ first return TD since Randall Cobb took a punt back in 2010. Charles Walker was resilient.
I know it was just New Mexico State, that we should have beat them by 35, that the defense still has a lot of work to do, and that the offense still has to prove that they can play at a high level consistently. I get all of that. This team is still a far cry from great, as Stoops admitted during the post-game presser. But I don’t think a lot of UK football fans expect greatness. We do, however, expect the Cats to give great effort and to fight to the end every single time out.
Kentucky football history is littered with teams that BBN passionately supported simply because they refused to give up, no matter what the scoreboard or the win column said. This was a trait that has been seen rarely, if ever, during the Mark Stoops era until Saturday. I know that Commonwealth was empty against the Aggies, but I still believe that the fans want to support this team – we just need something to rally behind. Resiliency is a trait that a fan base can support.
UK didn’t always play smart on Saturday, and they didn’t always play well, but they kept bouncing back. I have no clue how the team will play against South Carolina in this week’s MUST WIN conference contest, but I now know that the Cats are capable of showing some heart. If they can just do that the rest of the season, maybe – just maybe – this team will find a way to turn this thing around. I say UK beats the Gamecocks 35-31. Go Cats!