So, um.....it was a win. That’s what you want at the end of the day, although when you’re taking on a team from the Ohio Valley Conference, you expect more of a win.
Kentucky overcame a very poor first half performance to defeat Eastern Kentucky 27-16, on a day when many things went wrong on both sides of the ball. While there were some questions answered, a few new ones popped up ahead of Kentucky’s trip to South Carolina to open SEC play.
Let’s take a look at what went well for the Wildcats, what did not, and what was downright awful from the game on Saturday.
At this point, the quarterback discussion is over. While he’s not perfect, Johnson had a great game yesterday, and he had his second straight game without a turnover. The questions remain about consistency (and hopefully those will be answered against South Carolina), but at this point, the job should remain his until he does something to warrant otherwise, or unless he were to get hurt.
I wrote a few weeks ago that Drew Barker likely presented the best chance for a consistent offensive attack, and for Kentucky to have the best season possible. That was based on things that had come out from practice, as well as the concern that Johnson’s passing had not continued to develop. While those concerns remained after the Southern Miss game, he was a big reason for Kentucky’s comeback on Saturday. He led two terrific drives at the end of the first half, one for a touchdown and another to give UK a chance to tie the game, and helped light a fire heading into the break when things seemed to be going horribly. He showed a great touch on a pair of deep passes to Blake Bone, and threw a touchdown to CJ Conrad that might have been the best throw he’s made at Kentucky.
While I understand—and agree with—the decision by Stoops before the game started to have Barker play the third and fourth series of the game, it was a failure due to the game situation and failed miserably (more on that later). However, it likely lit a fire under Johnson, who came out firing and put the debate to rest.
Oh yeah....that touchdown run.....
Benny Snell and Sihiem King
We saw Snell walk into the tunnel following the opening drive, and when word trickled around the press box that he was having x-rays on his midsection, you could feel a sense of dread fill the room.
Thankfully, it turned out to be just bruising, and whatever the training staff did at halftime, they deserve an award. After rushing for just three yards on three carries in the first half, Snell carried the Wildcats on his back, rushing for 102 yards and a touchdown on sixteen carries after the break. His powerful running style that we got used to last season was back on display, including on a powerful twenty-five yard touchdown run to put the Wildcats ahead 17-16
Snell was helped by the fact that he had someone step up as a fellow battering ram: Sihiem King. The running back struggled against Southern Miss, but stepped up after Snell went down against the Colonels. He rushed for twenty-eight yards on five carries before the break, but helped Snell wear down the defense in the second half, as he added thirty-five yards on four carries in relief. If he can continue to come in for Snell and help move the chains, we could see the power run game from last season become a primary weapon, which will open things up for Johnson and the passing game.
It has been an up-and-down career for Bone at Kentucky, so it was good to see him step up against the Colonels. He made back-to-back big catches just before halftime, as he hauled in a pass for nineteen yards, and then caught another pass on the next play for thirty-one yards to put UK into field goal range.
He only had one catch in the second half, but it was a big one. He beat his man on an out-and-up pattern (which Johnson sold with a terrific pump fake), and Johnson hit him in strike for a forty-three yard gain, which set up the touchdown run for Snell. Hopefully Bone can continue to get open and build rapport with Johnson, and be a go-to receiver in this offense moving forward.
The Pass Defense
When you allow an FCS team to complete 31-of-43 through the air for 256 yards, and you don’t get an interception until they had to start forcing throws, you need to sit down and figure out what went wrong. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is, “a lot.”
Kentucky could not stop EKU’s offense in the first half when they decided to pass the ball. A large part of that fell on the defensive line. There were few, if any, pressures that I can even remember, and there were zero sacks. In fact, Kentucky did not record a sack until the fourth quarter, and only one at that. Both of EKU’s quarterbacks were able to get what they wanted, whether the Wildcats went man or zone.
This was understandable last week, as Southern Miss have a solid group of wideouts. However, with Chris Westry and Derrick Baity on the field, there is no excuse for guys to be so wide open. They need to clear this up before SEC play, or we may see a lot of shootouts this season.
The Kick Coverage
The special teams unit needs to buy lunch for Austin MacGinnis this week. He likely saved two kick return touchdowns, as LJ Scott was getting what he wanted in the return game today. The former Louisville running back busted two big returns, including a fifty-three yard return to start the second half, en route to 141 yards on four returns. Hopefully this was an anomaly, but the Wildcats need to work on it before facing South Carolina this weekend.
The Drew Barker Decision
Look, I understand the thought process, and given the expectations of the game it made sense. Drew Barker was going to play the third and fourth series of the game.
If Kentucky had been up 10-0 or 14-3, then I doubt anybody would have been too upset about it. However, that’s not the situation. Kentucky was dealing with injuries to Benny Snell and to yet another offensive lineman. The Wildcats were trailing 7-3 at the time. They had zero momentum. They had no running game established. Stoops should have abandoned the plan until later. Instead, he put Barker out there to “gain confidence” and it failed.
To be fair, Barker wasn’t bad. He was 1-for-2 for a total of five yards. However, he completed a seven yard pass on his first play—only to have it called back for holding. His next pass attempt saw a pass interference penalty negate the play. After an incomplete pass and a two yard run, he was sacked when nobody got open on third and eight. The next drive, Kentucky trailed 14-3 and once again Barker was put behind the chains right away with a penalty, this time for a false start. After a two yard run, he hit CJ Conrad for five yards, and then was on the end of a coverage sack on third and eight.
While it wasn’t a “bad” performance by Barker, it was a horrible decision by Stoops to put him in where he did. Planned or not, Stoops and Eddie Gran should have called an audible given the situation, and waited until later. When you put in the young man to “gain confidence” in that situation, and you do the exact opposite, nobody wins. I still believe that Barker needs to get some more playing time at some point this season (maybe we get up big on South Carolina and he can come in during garbage time?) to gain some rhythm and confidence in case he is needed to fill in for an injury, but the way it went down on Saturday could not have gone much worse.
Lynn Bowden’s Ejection
Was it malicious? No. Was it targeting by the intent of the rule? No. Was it a violation of the rule and worthy of an ejection? Yes.
Kentucky's Lynn Bowden was tossed for targeting. pic.twitter.com/1VEQDn4IoK— Sporting News (@sportingnews) September 9, 2017
Nobody thinks that Lynn Bowden was trying to target the defender. However, while the rule itself is flawed, everyone knows the rule. You cannot lead with your helmet, and you cannot put yourself into that situation. If the defender had not lowered his shoulder to brace for contact, Bowden’s helmet never makes contact with his, and we might have gotten to see the young man make some plays. We will never know. What we do know is that, as Stoops told us during the post-game press conference, the Wildcats focused on avoiding the penalty during fall camp. They discussed it, they went over it, and he informed them that it would be looked for by officials this year.
Bowden made a mistake, plain and simple. Hopefully, it is one that he—and the rest of the team—will learn from moving forward, so that it does not happen again. It is unfortunate that he was unable to play on Saturday, as it was hinted that they had some things planned for him within the offense. However, while it sucked that he was ejected, he knew the rule and (intentional or not) he broke it. The good news: per UK, Bowden will not have to sit out against South Carolina.
Do we have to do this again? Eddie Gran—STOP RUNNING THE WILDCAT!
Look, maybe they planned to run Bowden in it a few times. It could be a deadly package, with him being a Randall Cobb-type player who can run and throw. Maybe we would have seen that on Saturday, had the aforementioned ejection not taken place. But we didn’t. Gran said in the postgame that he may not run it again this year.
Unless you’re running it with Bowden, please stop subjecting Benny Snell to unnecessary eight-man fronts and brutal hits like he received from EKU.