Fans across the Commonwealth spent another weekend riding the sickening roller coaster that is Kentucky football, but by the the time the ride came to an end, they left thrilled.
Most expected the Cats to roll from start to finish over an FCS team that hasn’t won since October 2014. Instead, Kentucky started like a team that hadn’t won in more than two years. To say they started “flat” would be dishonest. It was an atrocious abomination.
In the first quarter, Austin Peay outgained Kentucky 134 yards to 22. The Cats ran only six plays, while the Governors controlled the ball and line of scrimmage, possessing the ball for 11:32. The nightmare continued into the second quarter. On the first play Austin Peay’s lead grew to 13-0 on a Pick Six.
Luckily, it would not last. Benny Snell saved Kentucky eight minutes later, scoring on a 30-yard touchdown to correct the Cats’ course and open the floodgates. Kentucky took the lead before half and never looked back. They scored seven straight touchdowns — three in only five plays in the third quarter — to blow the Governors out and become bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.
We knew they would get there, but we didn’t know it was going to be difficult. Here’s how it happened, from the bad to the good.
“In Case of an Emergency”
Unbeknownst to most, Stephen Johnson injured his left knee against Tennessee. Out of extreme caution, Stoops opted to give Cincinnati transfer Luke Wright his first career start, with Johnson available “in case of an emergency.” A 13-0 deficit is an emergency.
Wright was hit as he threw a third down pass across the middle, making it easy for Gunner Scholato to catch it and take it 25 yards to the house.
Johnson emerged from the sideline the following series and did not seem to struggle with a knee brace on his left leg. Even though Kentucky fans were not immediately convinced that a comeback was inevitable, Johnson was efficient. He completed 5/9 passes for 101 yards and 2 touchdowns for a 232.2 QB rating.
Penalties, Penalties, Penalties
Chris Westry’s interception kept Austin Peay out of the end zone after a dominant opening drive. Boom Williams was prepared to turn the tide and retake momentum on UK’s second offensive play, but Ryan Timmons’ holding call erased Boom’s 94-yard score.
That wasn’t the only touchdown taken off the scoreboard. Jojo Kemp’s 10-yard touchdown was called back after a holding penalty. Fortunately, the Cats scored two plays later and Kemp rediscovered the end zone before the night ended.
Still, Kentucky committed 10 penalties for 85 yards, a season-high in both categories. You’d expect the team to clean up errors at the end of the season, but they went in the complete opposite direction today.
Stephen to C.J. (Finally) Worked
After Kemp’s touchdown was called back, the stadium sighed, worried the Cats would leave points on the field before half. Instead, something we’d been waiting for finally happened: Stephen Johnson and C.J. Conrad connected for a touchdown in a tight window. They connected earlier this year, but more times than not, their timing was off. This time the ball was placed perfectly over the defender’s hands and into Conrad’s outstretched arms as he fell into the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown.
Can’t Stop the Cutback
Austin Peay was able to move the ball with the power of the cutback. The defense consistently over-pursued, leaving huge holes. All it took was one cut and the Governors were off to the races. The Cats were able to corral them this week, but that will not be the case next week.
Redemption for Badet
As soon as Stephen Johnson entered the game, Eddie Gran brought out his big guns. On the first play he dialed up the deep post to Jeff Badet. A play best described as “feast or famine,” it’s the same play Badet has scored on and the same play Badet dropped into a Georgia defender’s hands for an interception. This time, it was the latter.
Badet was so close to catching the ball, it was hard to believe he dropped it. Gran didn’t lose faith in Badet. A few drives later, he dialed up the post again. This time Badet caught it for a 42-yard gain. Both parties, Gran and Badet, deserve praise for refusing to end the night on a low.
Senior Day Scores for Jojo Kemp
Jojo Kemp has been a fan favorite since he arrived in Lexington, but in his final year he’s taken a backseat to Benny Snell. Even though he essentially got beat out by a true freshman, he never put his head down. He never pouted. He led.
Tonight was his night to put on a show one more time for the fans in Commonwealth Stadium. The slow start threw a hitch in the plans, but Eddie Gran made sure to give Jojo an opportunity to shine. He gained 54 yards on 8 carries and found the end zone twice, including this 40-yard dash down the middle of the field.
Snell is UK’s Record-Breaking Savior
Tonight’s turnaround, this season’s turnaround, could not have been possible without true freshman running back Benny Snell. Whenever Kentucky needed consistency, they turned to Snell. He never let his team down.
Snell’s monster season is one for the record books. He surpassed Moe Williams for the most rushing yards by a freshman in school history. But that’s not his most impressive milestone. Snell finished the day with 152 rushing yards, giving him 1,006 on the season. It’s the first time Kentucky has ever had two backs rush for more than 1,000 yards. Leonard Fournette and Nick Chubb were the last true freshmen to rush for 1,000 yards in the SEC.
Tonight’s game did not follow the script, but nothing has all season. Kentucky lost a 25-point lead to Southern Miss, then lost Drew Barker for the year. That same team threatened to win the SEC East and finished with UK’s best conference record in a decade, behind two 1,000-yard rushers and a dominant offensive line.
Nothing has gone according to plan for the Wildcats this season, expect one thing: for the fist time since 2010, Kentucky is going bowling.