With the win over Vanderbilt this past Saturday, the Kentucky Wildcats football team reached the halfway point in its 2016 regular season with a 3-3 record at the turn. There were ups and there were downs (probably more downs), but the good news is there are still three, maybe four, winnable games ahead on the path to a bowl game.
Will that happen? Will they win three more to reach the first postseason of the Mark Stoops era? The upcoming games on the back half of the schedule will determine that. But before those kick off, let’s look back at how the Cats got to .500 through six with these superlatives and major storylines from the season.
Well That Wasn’t Supposed To Happen: Kentucky’s Season Opening Loss To Southern Miss
The year got off to a brutal start when Kentucky dropped its opening game to Southern Miss with the Wildcats’ former offensive coordinator, Shannon Dawson, on the Southern Miss sideline. Add to the fact Kentucky held a 35-10 lead in the first half and then gave up 34 unanswered points, and it’s about as brutal of a loss as one could imagine.
Mark Stoops said after that game, “I don’t know if I’ve ever in my career, ever wanted to apologize for a game, but that’s a tough pill to swallow right there, and I do. I didn’t think I would ever do that. That’s a tough loss and our fans deserved better.”
Worst Injury News: Drew Barker Out Indefinitely With Back Injury
This was to be Drew Barker’s year to guide the Wildcats’ offense. When Stoops signed Barker as the sixth-ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2014 class, the 2016 season was unofficially presumed to be the beginning of the Barker era. And then we got a glimpse of what that could be, in the first half of the first game, when Barker threw four touchdowns.
But things went way wrong against New Mexico State when Barker was carted off to the locker room with a back injury after he threw an interception on the third play of the game. We would later learn that the injury may have occurred at Florida and that it would keep him out for a long period of time.
Insert newcomer Stephen Johnson, who has a 3-1 record under center, but most in Big Blue Nation would still prefer to see Barker back there.
Biggest Surprise: The Emergence of Benny Snell Jr.
The biggest (and most exciting) surprise from the young season has been the play of Benny Snell Jr., the true freshman running back out of Ohio. Snell Jr. burst onto the scene in Week 3 with 136 yards rushing on 17 carries in his debut game. Filling in for JoJo Kemp in the spot behind Boom Williams, Snell averaged eight yards per carry and scored four touchdowns, which tied him with four other former Wildcats for most rushing TDs in a single game.
Since that coming out party, Snell has games of 73, 38 and 94 yards for 341 on the season. He has become the closer for the Kentucky football team with his ground-and-pound style of running.
Highlight Play of the Season: Charles Walker’s Punt Return Ends Six-Year Special Teams Touchdown Drought.
It had been six years since the Cats scored a special teams touchdown, dating all the way back to Randall Cobb’s playing days in 2010, until Charles Walker’s 66-yard return put Kentucky on the board late in the New Mexico State game.
Walker fielded the punt at the 36-yard line and took it all the way back to the house against the Aggies’ poor coverage team, as our own Freddie Maggard predicted on the broadcast.
Defensive MVP: Jordan Jones
Kentucky’s defense has been shaky, to say the least, but there has been one constant on that side of the ball and it’s the sturdy play of Jordan Jones, the SEC’s second-leading tackler. Jones had 19 total tackles against Southern Miss, and when the wheels fell off at Florida, it was Jones who fought to the very end.
Jones’ tackling numbers have slightly dropped in the last couple of games, but I think that’s more of a testament to other guys doing their jobs and not relying on Jones to make every play.
Also, shout-out to Mike Edwards in the secondary, who we’ll call the runner-up to Jones for MVP of the D.
The Achilles Heel: The Last Two Minutes Of The First Half
For reasons we may never truly understand, Kentucky flat-out sucks in the final moments before halftime. Southern Miss’ 71-yard score with 26 seconds stands out the most, but let’s not forget the near-interception return TD (although it was called back) against South Carolina; Vanderbilt getting into field goal range (although it was missed) thanks to a 65-yard kick return with 30 seconds on the clock; and New Mexico State scoring a touchdown to tie it up on a three-play, 70-yard drive in 20 seconds.
One We’d Like To Get Back: Blake McClain’s Dropped Interception
Hate to pile on Blake McClain for one costly mistake but the entire narrative of the season could be completely different now if he just hauls in that gift from Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens. Of course, McClain’s drop isn’t the reason Kentucky lost that game, but if he catches that and jogs to the end zone, the Cats are likely 4-2 right now.
McClain’s been good this year, for the most part, but that was not one of his finer moments.
Biggest Compliment: Future Top-Five NFL Draft Pick’s “Most Physical” Comment
Alabama’s Jonathan Allen is one of the best defensive players Kentucky will see all season, so it was nice to hear Kentucky’s offensive line was one of the best Allen’s seen in his career. The senior defensive tackle said, “That’s probably one of the most physical games I’ve played since I was in college. I have to give Kentucky a lot of credit.”
And who was matched up with Allen for much of the game? Landon Young, the true freshman left tackle starting in his first SEC road game, in Tuscaloosa of all places.
Must-Win Wins: South Carolina and Vanderbilt
Kentucky has already won two must-win games on the front end of its schedule. First, Mark Stoops threw some ice on his hot seat with a win over South Carolina in Week 4 in arguably the most must-win game of his career. Then he followed that one up with another must-win win, two weeks later, with the Vanderbilt win over the weekend.
Unfortunately Stoops also has a must-not-lose loss in that season-opening abomination of a game against Southern Miss.
Most Positive Takeaway At The Turn: Defense Improving
Since giving up 40-plus points to Southern Miss, Florida and New Mexico State, Kentucky’s defense has buckled down and shown it can stop someone, which seemed impossible through three. Since that horrific start, the Cats held South Carolina to only one touchdown; then held Bama to a season-low 34 points, with only three offensive touchdowns; and kept Vandy’s offense out of the end zone. Of all the positive momentum heading into the last six games of the season, the improvement of the defense is the most encouraging, considering how bad it was in the beginning.
Now let’s enjoy a Saturday off and then kick Mississippi State’s ass.