A win is a win, but the Kentucky Wildcats showed a lot of bad and ugly in their win over EKU. Here's this week's edition of the Good, Bad and Ugly.
Cory Freaking Johnson
The Wildcats defense has looked vastly improved from last year's squad, even at times during what turned into a shootout with EKU. Despite the offense rarely staying on the field and UK's defense out there far too much, Cory Johnson turned in a Herculean effort with 19 tackles after his 11-stop performance against Missouri last week.
That included the game-sealing stop on 4th-and-12 in OT:
They did it! https://t.co/kT5YMdY2BY— Josh Ahler (@JoshAhler247) October 4, 2015
That's 30 tackles over a two-game stretch for a defensive tackle, an unheard of accomplishment. In the span of one season, Johnson has gone from seldom-used JUCO backup to arguably being the best player on this defense and someone that is climbing up NFL draft boards.
As many defensive lineman as Mark Stoops and D.J. Eliot have put in the NFL, Johnson may end up being their best accomplishment yet. Watching him emerge this year has truly been fun to watch.
Few thought the Cats would win after they fell behind 27-13 with 7:39 left. The defense looked gassed and the offense looked nonexistent, but that changed as UK scored the final 21 points to escape with a 34-27 win.
What made the comeback so good was none of those scores came easy and required clutch play after clutch play by various Cats. Towles was great during it as he made several big throws, none better than his 4th-and-3 strike to Dorian Baker who skied for a great grab and the game-tying score.
The Heart By Both Teams
The Colonels showed a lot of heart and effort in this game and absolutely deserved to win. You rarely can say that when an FCS team travels to an SEC team's house, but EKU never backed down.
The same can be said of UK once they got down by two scores late and had done nothing to suggest they were capable of coming back on this night. The Cats dug deep and found enough heart to dig out of the big hole they'd dug themselves and pull off an improbable win.
It's clear Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson are the two best receivers in this offense, but Jeff Badet has managed to make at least one big play in nearly every game this season. He caught a 37-yard score against UL-Lafayette, a 43-yard catch at South Carolina, a 45-yard grab against Florida, and this week, a 36-yard score from Towles:
Towles. Badet. Tie game. https://t.co/l6M7FX4Yh9— Jason Marcum (@marcum89) October 4, 2015
That was easily his best grab of the year, and it helped keep UK afloat when points were hard to come by for the offense.
The Offensive Line
Even though EKU had former Ohio State star pass-rusher Noah Spence, there is simply no reason they should have been winning in the trenches like they were against Kentucky for too much of this game. The Cats' linemen were simply getting little-to-no push on the ground too many plays and allowing Towles to get pressured far too often.
In all, EKU notched 5 sacks, though one was on Towles for holding the ball too long. The ground game was really worrisome as UK had just 55 yards on 36 carries. Even as the Cats were rallying for the win, they were still struggling to get anything on the ground when UK's depth really should have allowed them to gash EKU for bigger runs.
It didn't help matters that Cole Mosier was injured and subbed with an injured Jordan Swindle, though the senior did ok in relief. This can't happen again with no more FCS schools on the schedule. Any more of this will lead to a lot of losses down the stretch.
The Entire Offense
Though the line really struggled, no one was having a good game until the comeback. Towles was erratic and had two interceptions and 2-3 other passes that could have been picked off. The backs weren't reading their blocks well and missed several blocks of their own in pass protection. The receivers were struggling to get open against FCS-level corners.
This was supposed to be the game that Mikel Horton made his case for more carries with Boom Williams sitting out. Instead, he went out and gained just 13 yards on nine carries and missed several key blocks in pass protection that led to a sack or hit on Towles. Horton just isn't ready for a bigger role in this offense other than a situational short-yardage back.
Garrett Johnson's Injury
It looked like Garrett Johnson was well on his way to another big game after grabbing three catches for 25 yards through almost two quarters as Towles was looking for him early and often.
That is, until Johnson took a brutal hit from Tyrell Curry and had to leave the game:
Garrett Johnson obliterated. Goodness. https://t.co/Vdwf9s6KOd— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) October 4, 2015
Johnson was sent to the locker room for what was likely concussion testing, though he did come back out, which is a positive sign he may not have been concussed after all. Still, that was a scary shot, and it took one of UK's hottest playmakers out of action.
THAT FIRST HALF
In case you need a reminder, here's the box score from what was maybe the worst half of football Kentucky has played this season.
Yikes, though the second-half box score wasn't much better up until the 7:49 mark. The offense pretty much sleepwalked through the first two quarters, which really gave EKU the confidence they needed to make a strong push in the second half and almost come away with the win.
What's often overlooked in easy blowouts BCS schools have over FCS teams is the BCS team asserts itself enough in the first half that the FCS team has little-to-no confidence coming out of halftime. UK did everything in their power to make EKU feel they could get this win, and they almost did.
Being Down 27-13
Admittedly, I thought this was over at the 7:49 mark with EKU up two touchdowns, and that was a very crushing and empty feeling. That's not because UK was about to lose to an FCS school as much as how bad I felt for Stoops, his staff and the players for how much work they had put into making this program an SEC contender.
We saw flashes of their hard work beginning to pay off over the first month with a road win over South Carolina, a top-25 win over Missouri and a narrow loss to what now looks like the SEC East favorites in Florida.
Just like that, all of their work was being reduced to a home loss to an FCS school. All do respect to EKU, that should never happen for any program, good or bad. The talent disparity is simply too great between teams from those levels outside of the worst FBS teams playing the absolute best FCS teams.
This would have been the kind of loss that directly leads to fans losing faith and not showing up to games, recruits decommitting, players considering transfers at the end of the year, and just a general lack of respect nationally. UK managed to avoid all of this, but the thought of all being so close to happening is an ugly feeling.