Have your nerves settled a bit from last night? Voice coming back yet? No?
I don’t remember the last time I’ve felt such a wide range of emotions watching a Kentucky football game. Anger, sadness, frustration, disappointment, hope, and pure joy to top it all off. We had quite a bit of those first four emotions during the Joker era, a good mix of hope mixed in when the Mark Stoops era began, and then a few moments of the joy sprinkled throughout. But last night, we saw the extremes of all six from start to finish.
I broke down those emotions into good, bad, and ugly we saw on Saturday night, and how they all tied together to bring us Kentucky’s seventh win of the season and fifth victory in conference play.
The entire defense
Seriously, are you kidding me? There have been a few bright spots for the defense over the years, but they usually struggled as a unit on all three levels. If the Cats were facing a third-and-short on defense, barring an epic failure by the opponent, it was a guarantee they were going to convert. They lived by the “bend but don’t break” mentality, but when push came to shove, they almost always broke in crunch time. Kentucky offenses would have to just outscore the opposition if they wanted to pull out the victory.
Now, there’s not a doubt in my mind this is the best defense in the SEC. They may even be the best in the nation.
The Kentucky defense allowed just 14 points on Saturday, Missouri’s second-lowest total of the season. The Tigers managed just 249 total yards, their second-lowest total of the year. Mizzou star quarterback Drew Lock managed just 165 yards and zero touchdowns through the air, his second-lowest total of the year.
And the only reason they scored that many points and managed that many total yards is because the Wildcat defense struggled to find their groove to start the game. They allowed 209 total yards and all 14 points in Missouri’s first four drives, each coming before halftime. They didn’t have a three-and-out in the entire first half. Missouri’s high-powered offense looked the part early.
After intermission, however, the script changed completely.
The Kentucky defense didn’t allow a single first down in the second half, forcing eight consecutive three-and-outs. Missouri managed just 49 second-half yards on 24 plays, good for an atrocious two yards per play. Zero points, and they didn’t ever even come close to finding themselves in touchdown territory.
As a unit, the Kentucky defense is tied with Clemson for the No. 1 scoring defense in all of college football. They have allowed 20 points or less in all eight games this season, the first time they’ve accomplished that feat since 1950. They’ve allowed just 104 points, the program’s best since 1987. They’ve allowed 74 points in six SEC games this season, the fewest in the first six SEC games since 1979. They haven’t allowed an opponent to break the 400-yard threshold this season.
As far as individual players go, Josh Allen is proving to be one of the best defensive stars in all of college football. The star pass-rusher managed 11 tackles, two sacks, and two forced fumbles against a stout Missouri offensive line. He has now managed 24.5 career sacks, moving him past Bud Dupree for second in Kentucky history.
Per Corey Price of UK Athletics, Allen is now the only player in the FBS since 2000 to have at least 56 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, ten sacks, five forced fumbles, and four passes defended in the first eight games of the season. He’ll likely hear his name called in the top-15 of the NFL Draft this spring.
Beyond Allen, Jordan Jones finished with 11 tackles, while Darius West managed eight tackles, one pass deflection, and one blocked field goal. Mike Edwards also had four tackles, including one tackle for loss and a pass deflection.
Mark Stoops begged for this kind of talent to work with when he first got to Kentucky, and he’s finally gotten it.
Despite the overall offensive struggles (we’ll talk about that later), quarterback Terry Wilson finished with arguably his best game in a Kentucky uniform.
The JUCO transfer finished with 267 yards (71 percent completion), one touchdown, and one interception. He had an average of 8.6 yards per attempt and a 71.1 overall QB rating, all while throwing 102 more passing yards than Missouri star quarterback Drew Lock.
According to Corey Price, Wilson had the most passing yards by a Kentucky quarterback in an SEC road victory since Andre’ Woodson at Mississippi State on October 28, 2006 when he finished with 284. He also joins just Tim Couch (at LSU, 1998) and Jared Lorenzen (Vanderbilt, 2001) as the only Kentucky quarterbacks with at least 267 passing yards and a completion percentage of at least 70 percent in an SEC road win.
Wilson’s biggest moment of the night came in the final 1:24, where he orchestrated an eight-play, 81-yard game-winning touchdown drive.
Take away the two sacks, and the Kentucky quarterback managed a flawless two-minute drill to lead the Cats to victory, including completions of 12, 16, 27, 13, 17, and two yards for the game-winner.
When you add in the absolutely laughable quarterback “competition” we saw throughout the game (you better believe that found its way into the “ugly” section), you can’t help but be proud of Wilson’s execution in crunch time.
What. A. Superstar.
The second Bowden stepped on campus last year, the Kentucky coaching staff flat-out said they were going to find a way to work the star playmaker into the offense as a true freshman. He ran plays out of the Wildcat, caught balls, returned punts, returned kicks, and even threw a few balls to put the icing on the cake.
He had his special moments, but he never found his way into the end zone.
This year, we got to see his first touchdown score on a catch from Terry Wilson in the Florida game. From there, the chemistry between Wilson and Bowden has been special, with the Wildcat receiver easily being the team’s most reliable option in the pass game since then.
Bowden took it about ten steps forward on Saturday against Missouri, setting career highs of 13 receptions and 166 yards. He’s the first Kentucky player with at least ten receptions since Ryan Timmons did it in 2014 and the first with over 100 receiving yards since Garrett Johnson, when he finished with 111 yards against Missouri last season.
He also finally broke free on a punt return, giving Kentucky their first touchdown of the day on a 67-yard scamper with 5:18 remaining in the game. When the offense needed to make a play, Bowden was the guy to make it happen.
Benny Snell/Kentucky offensive line
For the first time this season, Kentucky star running back Benny Snell was overwhelmed by the opposing defense, failing to get much of anything going. He looked frustrated with himself, pacing back and forth on the sideline. He wasn’t the bright and confident Snell we’re used to seeing week after week.
He rushed 19 times for just 67 yards and zero touchdowns, good for 3.5 yards per carry. His longest rush was just 15 yards, and even that was difficult to come by. Snell was gobbled up at the line of scrimmage or stopped for a minimal gain more often than not. Missouri would stack the box and attack any openings made by the Kentucky offensive line. The Tiger defense just won the line of scrimmage, plain and simple.
Snell did make another jump in the history books, though, as he moved past Moe Williams (3,333 career yards) on the all-time rushing list for second place in UK history. He now sits behind only Sonny Collins (3,835 yards), where he needs just 477 yards in five (or six) games to break the record.
Despite giving up two sacks on the final offensive drive, the line did manage to hang in there long enough for the Wildcats to move the ball down the field for a game-winning drive. That’s something to be proud of, regardless of the frustration they felt throughout the night.
Missouri got the best of Snell and the Wildcat offensive line on Saturday, but odds are good they won’t be held down for long.
Daniel’s massive club for a hand against Missouri was cool for KSR content purposes, but it translated to a bit of a sluggish performance when gametime came around.
The Kentucky star linebacker made a few tackles to start the day, but instead of wrapping up the ball-carrier and pushing him backward like usual, he had an awkward yank-and-spin bear wrestling technique that resulted in unnecessary yards added to each play.
In coverage, Daniel was beat on crossing routes over the middle on a few occasions, leading to two easy first downs. He also got caught holding in the end zone, leading to an eventual Missouri touchdown. He did make up for it later on a pass deflection on second down, which eventually led to a Tiger punt, giving the Cats an opportunity to score in crunch time.
We know the junior linebacker has the heart of a lion and wants to play every down, but it might have been beneficial to have Kentucky’s up-and-coming stud Chris Oats in for some extra reps to let Daniel recover a bit.
It wasn’t a horrible overall performance, but you could tell he was bothered a bit.
Saturday was the first time in quite some time I was genuinely fed up with Gran calling the shots on offense. He had several solid calls on Kentucky’s game-winning touchdown drive, but beyond that, the Wildcat offensive coordinator was absolutely horrible.
In obvious run situations, Missouri would stack the box with eight or nine defenders ready to pounce, and Gran would run plays for Benny Snell right into them. He would call for Snell or AJ Rose out of the Wildcat, but ran no one in motion with no sign of potential trickery to keep the defense on their toes. The Tigers collapsed on the running back each time with ease, putting the offense in tough position.
In crunch time, Snell actually started to find his groove, but got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on him. Snell was seen arguing with Gran immediately afterward, and then we didn’t see the star back for several series, with Rose taking his place. Was he being punished for it? I’m not sure, but it cost the Cats a few first-down conversions in short yardage situations.
Wilson was thriving in the intermediate game, but Gran rarely utilized the tight ends or David Bouvier in the middle of the field. On a second and two at midfield, Gran called a screen pass to Bowden on the outside with 181-pound sophomore receiver Josh Ali out to block. He whiffed the play, leading to a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. The Cats were forced to pass, leading to an incompletion and punt when they needed points on the board in a hurry.
Following timeouts, the offense ran the exact same play they were planning on running before the brief break. It allowed for the Missouri defense to set their unit up to make a stop, and on at least three different occasions, that’s exactly what they did. It wasn’t even that the offense was vanilla, it was just so predictable and the Tigers found a way to capitalize off of it.
The worst aspect of it all, however, was Gran’s media session after the game. It was condescending and argumentative, going after KSR’s Nick Roush for having the audacity to ask about deciding between running and passing the ball on the final play of the game. Especially considering his own players told the media they were going back and forth on it.
“Run it? There was no conversation about running the ball right there. Zero-point-zero-zero,” said Gran. “It was zero coverage, they were bringing the house. We had CJ in there and that’s a play. It’s part of a two-point play, it’s part of a win-the-game play. We’ve been practicing that against our defense, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve thrown that right there.”
If you ask his own members of the offense, however, that’s simply not true. In fact, the players said there was some confusion for the offense (including the player who caught the game-winner).
“There was a lot of confusion at the end, we were going back and forth between running it and throwing it,” said senior receiver David Bouvier. “The time was up, the refs were like “Come on, come on.” So Coach Gran was like, “Just go.”‘
“We had (my play) called out, and then they called timeout,” said senior tight end CJ Conrad. “We were thinking about switching it and possibly running the ball, but I was like “No, I’m winning this game for this team.”‘
It just wasn’t a good look for Gran all-around.
The Quarterback Experiment
When Mark Stoops announced during his call-in radio show on Monday evening that he would play “several” quarterbacks against Missouri, I genuinely thought it was just to light a fire under Terry Wilson. He had a rough go of it the last two games against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt, but not once did I feel there was an actual chance three quarterbacks would play in a crucial game with the SEC East at stake.
Danny Clark entered the game on Kentucky’s second drive for a quarterback keeper and fumbled the ball into the hands of a Tiger defender just across the line of scrimmage. The refs ruled him down by contact, and the play stood after review, but it was too close for comfort.
On Kentucky’s second drive of the second half, backup quarterback Gunnar Hoak entered the game down 14-3 in hopes of putting some points on the board. The only problem? It was the running backs struggling to get the ball down the field, not Terry Wilson. Wilson was actually performing at a high level with strong efficiency and zero turnovers at that point.
Now is not the time to groom egos and hand out participation trophies in the locker room. Though it’s easy to think the guy off the bench is the best thing since sliced bread, backups are backups for a reason. The coaching staff sees them in practice daily, and obviously made the call before the season started that Wilson was the best option going forward. Throwing in the backup in a high-pressure situation with major season ramifications on the line, especially with how well Wilson was finally playing, was borderline ludicrous.
The Cats came away with a massive victory with so much on the line, and for that, the Big Blue Nation should be proud.
Now let’s go win the SEC East.