Kentucky beat Eastern Michigan on the backs of its defense and special teams while delivering a non-esthetically appealing offensive performance. In other words; at times the UK offense was plain ugly on Saturday. Although it produced 24 first downs compared to EMU’s 20, the Wildcat offensive line underwhelmed along the line-of-scrimmage. It was frequently beaten off the edge, about got its quarterback killed, and provided very little push within the inside run scheme. As a unit; UK’s surrendered five quarterback sacks, ten tackles for loss, three quarterback hurries which led to 81 negative yards. While these numbers are eye popping; the feel and vibe of the game provided a much worse sensation.
Quarterback Stephen Johnson summed up what many within Kroger Field sensed, “At times it felt like we weren’t really prepared to be in that game. I have to pick (it) up. I have to get the guys more involved, and we need to play the whole 60 minutes.” That’s what a senior starting quarterback is supposed to say. That’s Johnson taking ownership. But, a positive is that Kentucky got the win over a good team when it was far from its best. 228-total yards was not the outcome that the BBN or Eddie Gran desired.
Troublingly, the 4th quarter was again dominated by the opposing team. EMU outlasted the Cats in time of possession: 10:21 to 4:39 while outgaining the home team 126 to 17-total yards. Furthermore, while leading 24-20, Eastern Michigan possessed the football on the game’s final drive with a chance to win. Self-inflicted errors, a low number of series due to 3rd down inadequacies, and the inability to finish off an opponent continue to plague the Cats. Furthermore; costly red-zone penalties, negative yardage on 1st down, and 7/17 on 3rd down overshadowed a valiant performance by Lamar Thomas’ receivers who are quietly improving on a weekly basis. His group’s unselfish blocking, route running, and non-drops are notable advances.
Good teams deliver a knockout punch when its opponent is wobbled. The Cats did not do this vs. Eastern Michigan. Kentucky flipped the field by defensive three-and-outs, quarterback sacks as well as extraordinary special team’s production but did not capitalize with touchdowns to increase its lead.
Running back Benny Snell finished with 75-yards off 21 carries. I’m unaware of the YAC (Yards after contact) at the time this article was sent to the KSR editorial staff. I’d estimate that number to be approximately 70% and that’s being conservative. WR Garrett Johnson (8 receptions, 61-yards) continues to play well and climb UK’s all-time statistical lists. When given time and opportunity, Stephen Johnson was steady: 18/27, 175-yards, 2 TD’s.
Credit Eastern Michigan’s defense. While lacking the high number of future pro’s that the BBN are accustom to seeing in SEC opponents, our scouting report was fairly accurate. The Eagle’s proved to be incredibly well coached, disciplined, disruptive, and stingy. It was also the best tackling team that UK has faced through five games. Many runs and yards after catch were stopped on the spot.
-Stoops on pass protection, “Not very good. Not very good protection. That’s the bottom line. So we need to protect better.”
After EMU QB Brogran Roback hit Sergio Bailey for a twenty-yard scoring strike on the Eagle’s first play, the Cats settled in and executed a well-prepared game plan. It did fall prey to a well-performed trick play for a touchdown. Roback’s arm-talent was on full display but Matt House adjusted to not allow incessant short/intermediate completions. This schematic alteration opened the door for UK’s pass rush to harvest havoc plays in the opponent’s backfield.
Go ahead and say it, “Josh Allen is this year’s Jon Toth.” You’d be correct by the way as I frequently discuss Allen’s significance to this football team and exceptional play. He now has to be included in the discussion of being one of the top Edge defenders in the Southeastern Conference. 7 tackles, 2 quarterback sacks, and 1.5 tackles for loss support that assessment. His OLB running mate Denzil Ware also excelled: 3 tackles, 1 QB sack, 1 TFL, 1 forced fumble, and 2 QB hurries. Joining Allen in the QB sack parade (6-total) was true freshman Josh Paschal, Kengera Daniel, Adrian Middleton, and Denzil Ware. Matt House’s unit also produced 7 tackles for loss. In all, it allowed just 13 net rushing yards.
Defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc’s rotation impressed. Nose tackle Matt Elam contributed another affirmative performance. DE Calvin Taylor Jr. played several snaps. Kengera Daniel and Adrian Middleton recorded quarterback sacks. Kordell Looney stretched an option play to the sideline to prevent a gain. Rookie NT Quinten Bohanna contributed quality minutes.
Back shoulder fades were the Eagle’s primary weapon. The secondary defended this play well. Overall the defense played winning football against a very good quarterback that lacked an elite supporting cast. Much like Josh Allen, Mike Edwards is solidifying his All-SEC status: 8 tackles (led team) 1 INT, 2 pass breakups.
–Mark Stoops on his defense, “I was for the most part. I know we can play better, but I was pleased. I thought rushing — you know, rush defense again was very good, and we said all week how well they threw the football, and they do. I thought we were in really good position and had pretty good coverage for the most part. Came up with some big sacks and had an opportunity for a few more pressures. And some things we missed, we were a little late on, but overall they played pretty solid.”
-Stoops continued, “I thought defensively we gave up some explosives again, and that’s never a good situation. I think the second half we played very good football until that late drive. Unfortunately, we’re not getting any first downs, and we’re on the field quite a bit, and field position was an issue, and they found a few plays and created a drive there. Outside of that, I thought we played some very good football in the second half.”
ClichÃ© alert: I thought Kentucky’s special teams were well, special. Coach Dean Hood has proven to be invaluable. Unfortunately, its offensive counterparts did not appropriately capitalize on exceptional field position and momentum shifting scenarios. Punter Matt Panton averaged 43.6 yards-per-punt and continued his knack to land kicks inside the opponent’s ten-yard line. Josh Paschal blocked a punt, Tristan Yeomans recovered a fumbled punt return. Explosive special team’s plays normally lead to points. That was not always the case on Saturday.
-Mark Stoops on the blocked punt, “We felt like we had an opportunity to get it at some point, and that’s always a double-edged sword because you’re starting to play really good defense, but you’re not moving the ball. So if you rough him, that’s a bad possession there if you rough him. So you’ve got to pick your spots when you come after him.”
What does all this mean?
Easy response here would be to say, “Well it wasn’t pretty but a win is a win.” But, that’s not completely true and not how I saw it. Mostly, two phases of the game were indeed pretty (defense and special teams). But ultimately teams are judged by its offensive output or points on the board. UK scored one point less than its season average.
We work extremely hard to prepare scouting reports that paint an objective and accurate portrayal of the Cat’s upcoming opponents. Eastern Michigan was about who we thought they were going to be. An extremely well coached team with a stingy defense that solidly tackled and was led by an upper-level quarterback. However, I thought that the Kentucky offensive line would experience more success in the trenches. It didn’t. That showed on the stat sheet and scoreboard.
Missouri is next and will be coming off a bye week. The Tigers have more talent than Eastern Michigan but have not proven to be as well coached or disciplined.
Cat’s Illustrated’s Jeff Drummond tweeted an interesting fact: Kentucky’s 11-4 mark in last 15 regular season games is its most successful stretch since the 1977-78 teams. Three of UK’s four 2017 wins have been against bowl teams from a year ago. But, there is no sugar coating the obvious; Kentucky has some serious work to do on its offensive line.
Kentucky is 4-1.