For the first time since 2015, Kentucky football has started its season 1-0. Saturday’s 24-17 victory for Coach Mark Stoops and company may not have been the prettiest win ever, but it was a road win against a solid mid-major opponent.
Sure, there were mistakes for the Cats, most notably a Benny Snell fumble in the red zone on the opening drive, and then there’s the fact that Kentucky’s offense only accounted for 254 total yards, but I’ll remind you again that the Cats are undefeated.
And while going into the game, UK’s run defense was perhaps the biggest question mark, it’s run defense was maybe as solid as it has looked in the Stoops era...
On to “What They’re Saying...”
Ito Smith's stat line: 15 rushes for 34 yards and one fumble lost.— KSTV (@KSTV_Sports) September 2, 2017
Southern Miss running back Ito Smith torched Kentucky for 173 yards when the two teams met in last season’s opener in Lexington. To hold an elite running back to that kind of performance is a testament to how much emphasis has been placed on stopping the run in the offseason for the Wildcats.
Kentucky Tight End CJ Conrad played a hell of a game, catching three passes for 97 yards and a touchdown.
No question that @ejhs18 had an impact today. He recovered two fumbles and returned one for a key TD. pic.twitter.com/m4CHVv7OlJ— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) September 3, 2017
Another tremendous effort from Denzil Ware, who was a huge part of Kentucky’s defensive success on Saturday.
We know we can play better at QB, Stoops said. The misses on third-down throws were issues.— Jen Smith (@jenheraldleader) September 4, 2017
Stephen Johnson threw for just barely over 50 percent, connecting on 11 of 20 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown to Conrad. He also ran one in himself. Maybe not an ideal performance, but a winning one nonetheless.
USM finished 2016 ranked 15th nationally in total defense. Presented UK with looks that were unconventional. No excuses, Cats need work.— Freddie Maggard (@FredMaggard) September 3, 2017
Southern Miss’s defensive unit is no joke, but there is plenty of room for the Cats to improve on offense.
Mark Stoops was overall very pleased with the performance. He said those are games they haven't always won in the past.— Joe Mussatto (@joe_mussatto) September 3, 2017
Stephen Johnson has now won 3 out of 4 road games.— Freddie Maggard (@FredMaggard) September 3, 2017
Stoops: There are some things from this last game that are easy fixes. Some pretty simple things a lot of times on OL, backs too impatient.— Jeff Drummond (@JDrumUK) September 4, 2017
Let’s hope he’s right.
Stoops: Maybe I'll have Coach Hood talk to the team (to remind them of 2015 game). They out-played and out-coached us."— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) September 4, 2017
That was not a fun game for Kentucky fans to watch two years ago. I expect the Cats to come out with a lot more confidence on Saturday and take care of business against the Colonels.
The Courier-Journal’s John Hale gave grades to each Kentucky position unit following Saturday’s win. Here’s a look at those, with expanded commentary on the highest and lowest grades:
Running backs: D
Star Benny Snell fumbled inside the Southern Miss 5-yard line to negate what could have been a first-quarter touchdown, and his night got little better from there. Snell totaled 67 yards on 20 carries. Backup Sihiem King totaled 12 yards on eight carries. That won’t cut it against better opponents that Southern Miss.
Wide receivers: B
Tight ends: A
The only offensive highlights of the day came from junior tight end C.J. Conrad on a 59-yard catch-and-run and a 22-yard touchdown reception. So much for those worries about Johnson being unable to hit Conrad over the middle. Senior Greg Hart did account for the Wildcats’ only dropped pass of the day.
Offensive line: F
The line was supposed to be the strength of the UK offense, but it was overmatched by Southern Miss for much of the night. An ankle injury to starting center Bunchy Stallings complicated matters, as undersized senior Nick Haynes was forced to play center longer that coaches would have liked, but that loss was not enough to account for the position’s struggles. The performance made 2016 seniors Jon Toth and Ramsey Meyers as well as injured left tackle Cole Mosier look all the more valuable.
Outside linebackers: A+
The best position group of the game, UK’s edge rushers found their way into the backfield at will. “Sam” linebacker Josh Allen totaled five tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack and one forced fumble. “Jack” linebacker Denzil Ware added three tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one sack, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and one touchdown. Freshman Josh Paschal helped clinch the win with a stout tackle at the Southern Miss 1-yard line on the Golden Eagles’ final possession.
Let’s hope the “easy fixes” for UK’s run game are implemented against EKU on Saturday.
Mark Stoops held a press conference on Monday, and SEC Country’s Joe Mussato reported some of the Coach’s key points:
Mark Stoops on the defense: "Fundamentally I thought that was the best we've played in some time."— Joe Mussatto (@joe_mussatto) September 4, 2017
Stoops said there's a 3rd down package where Josh Allen, Denzil Ware and Josh Paschal all play together.— Joe Mussatto (@joe_mussatto) September 4, 2017
Mark Stoops on Matt Elam: "I think it's probably the best he's played since he's been here."— Joe Mussatto (@joe_mussatto) September 4, 2017
Stoops on sticking with the wildcat: "Let's not everybody forget all the huge plays we've gotten off this."— Joe Mussatto (@joe_mussatto) September 4, 2017
Coach Stoops again offering some words of comfort for fans and encouragement to the players that the offensive line and running backs will get back to where they need to be. And obviously, Stoops was happy with UK’s defensive effort in the season opener.
John Hale also wrote a Courier-Journal story on former Eastern Kentucky head coach Dean Hood, who is now a part of Stoops’ staff at Kentucky...
“I’m sure I’ll get on the sideline and see those kids I recruited, see the kids I sat in their parents’ home and said ‘Hey, I’m gonna take care of your son’ and wasn’t able to see it to graduation for a lot of those kids,” Hood said. “I’m sure it’ll hit me then and be emotional. But that’s all it will be. I care about those kids.”
Hood compiled a 55-38 record as EKU’s head coach but was fired after a 6-5 2015 season. He posted just one losing record in his eight seasons at the helm of the program and reached the postseason three times.
Among Hood’s highlights at EKU was a two-overtime loss to Kentucky at Commonwealth Stadium in his final season. That game was played less than a year after players from both teams made headlines with an offseason bar fight.
You have to be happy for Coach Hood, and happy Kentucky has a guy with Hood’s experience in his current role. While Saturday’s game with EKU may be emotional for Hood, let’s hope the Cats take care of business so that this game is not as emotional for UK fans as the last time the two teams met in 2015. Kickoff is at noon Eastern this Saturday for Kentucky’s home opener.