Was it the curse of Kroger Field? First-home-game jitters? For a while, the Kentucky marching band was playing better than the Wildcats themselves.
But despite early struggles, Kentucky closed out a victory Saturday, defeating the Eastern Kentucky Colonels 27-16.
Here are five takeaways from the game:
Injury, penalties hurt ‘Cats in first quarter
Well, it wasn’t the best way to start. Kentucky faced multiple penalties in the first minutes of the game, including two personal fouls that caused significant damage. Eli Brown took a leaping penalty on an Eastern Kentucky punt that kept the Colonels’ drive alive in scoring position at Kentucky’s 34-yard line. (And score, the Colonels did.)
Then, there was a questionable targeting call against Lynn Bowden, which ejected the freshman wide receiver from the game. (Though, Bowden didn’t seem to think this would hurt the ‘Cats, proven by his tweet in the locker room.)
And when things seemingly couldn’t get any worse, Kentucky’s top running back Benny Snell Jr. suffered a rib injury, taking him out of the game. This hurt the Wildcats’ run game... that is, until the second half. (We’ll get to that later.)
Once again, C.J. Conrad snags Kentucky’s first touchdown
The penalty tables turned in the second quarter. A face mask committed on a sack by Eastern Kentucky gave the Wildcats the ball with a fresh set of downs. Stephen Johnson connected with tight end C.J. Conrad for a 23-yard trip to the end zone, the team’s first touchdown. Conrad continues to show why he’ll play a major part in Kentucky’s offense this season.
We figured out the starting QB for the rest of this season
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops will rue the day he replaced Stephen Johnson with Drew Barker for part of his team’s first home game.
Johnson surely proved himself, averaging nearly 15 yards per attempt after returning to the field. Not only did he complete several key passes, but also wasn’t afraid to run the ball himself. Quick on his feet, Johnson even strutted into the end zone to help the ‘Cats pull ahead 24-16 in the fourth quarter.
Johnson also threw two passes totaling 50 yards just before halftime to senior Blake Bone. These two connections helped the Wildcats gain much needed momentum and brought kicker Austin MacGinnis to the 38-yard line with one second left before halftime. Unfortunately, MacGinnis missed the field goal and the opportunity to tie the score.
But for the first time of the game, the Wildcats looked hungry.
Kentucky has 197 yards of offense compared to 147 for Eastern Kentucky. Of that, 125 yards came via Stephen Johnson on last two drives.— Jen Smith (@jenheraldleader) September 9, 2017
Johnson finished the game with 224 yards, completing 15 of 22 passes. Wow.
And Barker? He logged just five passing yards and lost 15 yards rushing. Yikes.
UK’s defense struggled until the second half
Kentucky’s defense might have searched Commonwealth Stadium on its GPS and gotten lost because it took a long time for it to show up. Then, the second half clock started, Kentucky stripped the ball and forced a fumble to gain possession.
Last year, the ‘Cats forced and recovered eight total fumbles. This was their fourth this season.
Fumble forced by Jordan Jones and recovered by Derrick Baity. That was UK’s fourth forced fumble of the season.— Jen Smith (@jenheraldleader) September 9, 2017
In the second half, the ‘Cats defense grabbed an interception while holding the Colonels to just three points.
Kentucky’s run game improves
The injury didn’t prevent Snell from an explosive return to the field in the second half. He ran for a 25-yard touchdown in the third quarter to give the ‘Cats the lead back at 17-16. The running back notched 103 rushing yards, nearly a 40-yard improvement from last week. Maybe this total would have been higher had Snell played the entire game, or maybe the rest helped him refuel. Either way, he looked much better Saturday than he did against Southern Miss last week.
In regards to run game improvement, Stoops told SEC Network in a postgame interview, “We’re just a little bit cleaner.”
Snell has a lot of potential to grow this season. I’d say Stoops is counting on that.
BIG game next week: Kentucky will open Southeastern Conference play against the South Carolina Gamecocks 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16, at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Here is the final box score from today’s win:
Here the highlights from UK’s second win of 2017:
HIGHLIGHTS: Kentucky gets their first home game of the season relive it here. pic.twitter.com/dkKqw795gC— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) September 9, 2017