After an emotionally-draining, one-point loss suffered to Florida in Week 4, Kentucky found a way to bounce back and get a victory over a gritty Eastern Michigan team by a score of 24-20 on Saturday at Kroger Field.
It may not have been pretty, perhaps even downright boring at times, but a win is a win, and I believe, at the beginning of the season, that any Kentucky fan would have taken a 4-1 record at this point.
For Kentucky’s offense, Stephen Johnson played a solid game, completing 66 percent of his passes for 175 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions. But Johnson’s stat line could have looked even better if not for the offensive line allowing five sacks to the Eagles. Eastern Michigan’s defense also recorded 10 tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries, resulting in just 53 rushing yards for UK’s offense.
Eastern Michigan’s offense out-gained the Wildcats on the day by a total of 312 yards to 228. Kentucky’s offensive line continued to present concerns, but at the end of the day, the Cats got the win and will look to build and improve as they host Missouri next week for their third home game in as many weeks.
Here’s a look at what they’re saying...
Miked Edwards intercepts the final heave and UK wins.— Jen Smith (@jenheraldleader) September 30, 2017
This was Edwards’ third interception on the year, putting him in a four-way tie for most interceptions on the year in the SEC.
Not very good protection, Stoops said. “We need to protect better."— Jen Smith (@jenheraldleader) September 30, 2017
I guess a win is a win but that was UGLY. Gotta get something fixed. Can't keep playing to level of comp. #BBN #4-1— jared lorenzen (@JaredLorenzen22) September 30, 2017
Playing to the level of competition has seemed like a trend in recent memory. I think Eastern Michigan was probably better than Southern Miss, but still, you look at how Kentucky played against EKU in week 2 and it’s hard to argue to the contrary.
Remember that one game where Kentucky had ZERO bad snaps. That was today.— Nick Roush (@RoushKSR) October 1, 2017
One bright spot for the UK offense...but it didn’t come without a cost. Drake Jackson finally saw significant action at center, but he showed some vulnerability adapting to the game speed. He also missed a couple of key blocks. Hopefully he continues to improve.
UK players were wearing Nate Northington shirts after the game. Benny Snell called him a "hero." pic.twitter.com/PG4kTMYZAs— Joe Mussatto (@joe_mussatto) October 1, 2017
Nate Northington is truly a hero. A great storyline to an otherwise rather boring game.
Mark Stoops: 'Well, the good news is we got the victory. That just didn't feel very good the whole game'— Mark Story (@markcstory) September 30, 2017
No it did not.
So, has Kentucky played down to their level of competition this season?
“A few times, yeah,” quarterback Stephen Johnson admitted Saturday. Stoops said he doesn’t want to believe that’s the case.
But Eastern Michigan was a Hail Mary heave from beating Kentucky in a game where the Eagles were two-touchdown underdogs. Eastern Michigan outgained Kentucky 312-228. It was the fewest yards the Cats (4-1) managed in any game this season.
“I wouldn’t say we underestimated that team, but we didn’t come out with that fire like we would a Florida or any other team,” running back Benny Snell said after the game.
“At times it felt like we weren’t really prepared to be in that game,” Stephen Johnson added.
The Wildcats offensive line leaked for much of the night, and coordinator Eddie Gran said his side lacked its “edge.”
“The attitude, the juice, the freakin’ want-to of getting after it and whipping somebody’s tail every snap,” Gran said. “Doesn’t matter if it’s Florida, Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan — doesn’t matter. This game is a big man’s game and you have to bring it every week or you will get your tail kicked.”
Kentucky was coming off the 1-point loss to Florida the week prior, but no player pointed to a hangover. Gran said if a hangover existed, it would’ve been the fault of him and the staff.
The game Saturday against Eastern Michigan was sandwiched in between Kentucky’s SEC slate, and Johnson pointing to a lack of preparation helps make sense as to why the score was so close. But beyond that, why?
“Honestly, man, I don’t know,” linebacker Denzil Ware said. “I know at the end of the day the scoreboard said Kentucky was out on top. I’m never gonna take back from a victory.”
On to a few notes from Monday’s press conference with Coach Mark Stoops...
Stoops: With Drake playing; gave us 8 men in the rotation. Need to have a great week of practice. This point in season lot banged up.— Freddie Maggard (@FredMaggard) October 2, 2017
Doesn’t matter how many men you have in the rotation if they’re not getting the job done. It’s not a knock on Drake, but the unit as a whole on Saturday.
Stoops: Drake played good, started slow. Settled in and did some good things. Consistent, effective.— Freddie Maggard (@FredMaggard) October 2, 2017
Stoops: Drake strengths...Attitude and work ethic. Wants to win for team. Wants team to do well. Been consistent with snaps, good leverage.— Freddie Maggard (@FredMaggard) October 2, 2017
We do need to give Drake Jackson a little bit of slack. Still a young, inexperienced player that seems to have the right attitude to keep improving.
-- Sounds like status quo with Jordan Jones as he works his way back from shoulder injury. He's missed three straight games. Stoops said "we'll see" on Charles Walker after a back/rib injury Saturday.
-- Sophomore linebacker Eli Brown, who has been starting in place of Jordan Jones, has played well, Stoops said, but is starting to "get banged up." Stoops said Brown's expanded role has pounded home the need for Brown to put in the work in the offseason to get his body in a spot to handle the physicality of SEC football.
-- Quarterback Stephen Johnson is also dealing with some minor bumps and bruises. They'll limit his reps in practice Monday.
-- Freshman Josh Paschal has played "Sam" linebacker, "Jack" linebacker, defensive end and defensive tackle in addition to his special teams roles this year, Stoops said. Paschal was named the SEC's Special Teams Player of the Week Monday.
"That's the versatility that's honestly very rare," Stoops said.
-- On Missouri: "The No. 1 thing you always are concerned about when you play them is their offense and the tempo at which they play," Stoops said.
-- Stoops said he can relate to the difficult start for Missouri, and said he's sure they will come out rejuvenated after a bye week.
The Cats need to be able to take care of business against Missouri this week, and come out with a victory and without any other significant injuries. The bye week will be huge for regaining strength and mental toughness ahead of a tough second half of the season for UK.
The Cats are currently a favored by 11.5 at home against Missouri. Saturday’s kickoff against the Tigers is set for 7:30 p.m. ET and will be broadcast live on the SEC Network.