It’s always good to start the season with a win, and Kentucky football did just that. They traveled to Hattiesburg and exacted some revenge as they defeated Southern Miss 24-17 to open the season. While some players did not live up to expectations, others stepped up to ensure that the Wildcats went back home with the victory. We will examine whose stock was improved by their performances, whose stock took a hit after Saturday’s game, and who the jury is still out on for the time being.
STOCK RISING — MATT ELAM, DENZEL WARE, & JOSH ALLEN
Maybe we should have Greg McElroy critique our players more often. It seemed to work with Matt Elam.
After being absolutely eviscerated by the SEC Network analyst during SEC Media Days, having his work ethic called into question, Elam had the best game of his Kentucky career. While he did all of his stat-sheet damage in the first half, he recorded four tackles for only the fourth time in his entire Kentucky career, the last time being....last year’s game against Southern Miss. In addition, he recorded a tackle for loss, of which he had only recorded one-half for his entire career. Maybe more importantly, however, is what he did that did NOT show up on the score sheet. Elam drew double-teams throughout the game, something he has rarely demanded in his three-plus years in Lexington. This freed up the rest of the defensive line, helping the trench unit account for nearly forty percent of the tackles for the Wildcat defense on Saturday.
The front seven, in general, were outstanding, but the performances from Denzel Ware and Josh Allen on the pass rush were promising signs after struggling in that area last season. Linebacker was a position that Kentucky had questions about, but the two outside backers were terrors for the Southern Miss pass protections. The duo had a combined two sacks, four and a half tackles behind the line, and combined for two fumbles forced and recovered. The latter of those, a scoop-and-score for Ware, ended up being the crucial touchdown for Kentucky, the only one they would record in the second half.
STOCK FALLING — OFFENSIVE LINE
We all knew the loss of Jon Toth would be a difficult one, and that replacing him would not necessarily be easy to do. However, we were informed all off-season that the offensive line depth would come into play this year, and we would see the strength that comes from it.
Then we lost Cole Mosier during fall camp, and center Bunchy Stallings went down with an injury early in the game. After moving linemen around, the running game struggled as the offensive line was just unable to get much push off the snap. This made it difficult for the Wildcats to end the game, as they struggled to run out the clock. There were also key offensive line penalties that stalled or killed drives in the second half. While this issue will likely not be a problem against Eastern Kentucky, if injuries continue to hit the unit, it could lead to issues down the road.
STOCK HOLDING — STEPHEN JOHNSON
Despite Stoops saying that both QBs Johnson and Drew Barker would see time, it was Johnson who took every snap (well, as quarterback at least, but we will get to that later) on Saturday. It was a mixed bag for the signal caller. He was 7-of-11 in the first half for 135 yards, but gained only 41 yards on 4-of-9 passing after the break. He made some great passes to tight end CJ Conrad throughout the game, but missed wide-open players, including a key third-and-six incompletion where he threw high on a ten-yard slant pattern to a six-foot-three wideout. Stoops commented after the game that Johnson would need to improve on his intermediate passing, and that was evident after Saturday’s performance.
In the second half, Johnson was only 1-of-5 on third-down passes, the one completion being a dump-off to Snell on a third-and-20 play. That will not get it done in games against better competition such as Florida or Georgia or Tennessee. That said, the other important stat was zero—as in, zero turnovers. Johnson ran the ball five times and took a sack, but he held onto the football. He also did not throw an interception, although he did force the ball into tight areas two or three times. Turnovers were something this offense had to improve on, and Johnson did just that.
We likely will not learn much regarding Johnson next week against an out-matched EKU team, but he found a way to lead the Wildcats to victory and has now won three of the last four road games he has started—a feat few Kentucky quarterbacks can claim.
STOCK RISING — MATT PANTON
Kentucky has their punter, if Saturday was any indicator. Nine punts, 378 yards, and two punts pinned inside the one-yard line will win you the job in a heartbeat. Panton was outstanding against Southern Miss, and his ability to keep the Golden Eagles pinned back made things easier for the defense, and proved to be a major contribution to the victory.
STOCK HOLDING — BENNY SNELL
If you look at the stat sheet, it was a bad game for the sophomore running back. While it was expected he would pick up where he left off last season, many people underestimate how important having two backs was for his numbers. We saw on Saturday that if he doesn’t get help, it will be difficult for him to find running lanes against eight-man fronts. He also fumbled on a carry inside the five-yard line in the first quarter, costing the Wildcats points, which luckily did not come back to hurt them.
However, let’s not forget that while he only averaged 3.3 yards per carry on the day, that number is hurt by a bad snap on the first drive of the game. If you take away the 11 yards he lost on that play, Snell ran for 78 yards on 19 carries, which comes out to 4.1 yards per carry. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s a big improvement over a measly 3.3 at first glance.
Snell also was not helped by playcalling, which brings me to my next point...
STOCK FALLING — THE WILDCAT (sell, sell, sell!)
Can we never run the Wildcat again this season? Please? Eddie Gran, just rip that part of the playbook out, and shred it. Or set it on fire. Or make paper airplanes from the pages and float them from the top of Patterson Office Tower, just to see how far they can travel.
The Wildcat does not work when you do not have a player who is a threat to throw, or someone coming in motion. When you simply line up a player and direct snap to him, the defense knows what is coming. Look, we know it has worked in the past. We all remember what Randall Cobb did with the formation. But....Cobb could throw. JoJo Kemp almost always had someone coming in motion. The Wildcat, as it was run on Saturday, is simply telling defenses, "hey, everyone crash the line and hit Benny at the line" every time you call it.
So please, no more Wildcat. Can we all agree on that? Yes? Good, moving on.
STOCK RISING — CJ CONRAD
The tight end had a big game, hauling in three catches for 97 yards and a touchdown. However, he should have had 100 yards and two touchdowns. Had he not looked back twice on his 59-yard catch in the first half, Conrad gets a 62-yard touchdown on a terrific pass play. (Kids, don’t look back!)
While it is curious why more plays were not drawn up to get him the ball, especially in the second half, it is great to see him getting involved in the offense from the jump. Both of his big catches were seam routes, which will be open for him throughout the season if the play-action pass game can get going. I expect to see him have a big season.
STOCK FALLING — THE SECONDARY
A unit that was supposed to be one of the bigger strengths this season was exposed by the Southern Miss receiving corps. Many of the Golden Eagles’ big plays came either by winning fifty-fifty passes, simply beating the defensive backs to the ball at the high point, or because of missed tackles in the secondary. Chris Westry was twice beaten on jump balls for big gains on passes he usually defends better. That said, Westry redeemed himself with the huge forced fumble with nine minutes left in the game, a key moment in the victory. I expect tackling and jump-balls to be a key point of emphasis this week in practice.
Now, I’m always one for ending on a positive note, so I have one more person to give some kudos to....
STOCK WAAAAY UP — THE FOLKS RESPONSIBLE FOR KEEPING STOOPS OFF THE FIELD
Seriously, there was one play in the final two minutes where one guy was grabbing Stoops on three different occasions and keeping him off the paint and off the field. Throughout the game, multiple people pulled Stoops back and kept him from being on the field. Given how that has been an issue in the past, a big thank-you goes out to the Kentucky staff for preventing any silly penalties and saving Stoops from himself.