The Kentucky Wildcats are 2-0, but getting there wasn’t easy.
In back-to-back weeks, UK needed all four quarters to grind out a win. That was expected last week on the road against a good Southern Miss program. That wasn’t expected at home this week against EKU out of the FCS ranks.
Alas, the Cats found away to gut out a 27-16 win that was even closer than the final score indicates. Here is a recap of everything Mark Stoops had to say following the win, courtesy of UK Athletics:
Opening Statement …
“We knew all week that it would be a tough game. A lot of people have their own opinions, but we watched them last week versus Western [Kentucky]. I said it in my press conference on Monday. I believe our players knew it was a good football team, that it would be a tough, hard-fought game. It was
“Again, I give them a lot of credit. They did a lot of good things. I give our team credit for doing what they have to do to win the game.
“We're 2-0. That feels very good. The nice thing is that we know, and our players know, there's a lot of things we need to improve on. And they'll do that. We'll get better. We've been in this position before. We were in it last year and the record wasn't the same. We improved as the season went on. We got better. We won a lot of football games since we kind of improved in turnovers and running the ball. So we've done some good things and we got to continue to do that. We got to look at all areas and see.
“Offensively it was frustrating at times, but you look down and you rushed for 200 yards, threw it for 200 yards. There's some silly mistakes. There's still some discipline things, that again nobody needs to hit the panic button on. We just need to get back to work and iron some things out. And we'll do that.
“Again, we had a high snap to kill the possession on the fourth down. That hurts us. They had momentum. They did a really nice job of just keeping us off balance and being efficient with their offense and getting in some sets and nickel and diming us and getting some first downs and moving it on us.
“Then we got some big stops, got some turnovers. Again, did what we had to do to win. We'll look at all areas. We'll continue to improve. It feels really good to be 2-0. I can't wait to get back to practice and look really forward to the challenge of going to South Carolina this week.”
Q. Was the plan to put Drew [Barker] in on the first drive?
“Yes. We said that we were going to play him on the third series no matter what. We did. We have to. You know, said the same thing last year when Stephen [Johnson] was a backup. You're one play away from playing him. Sure enough, Stephen was playing.
“We had to get Drew back out there and get his confidence up and get him playing and get him some snaps, see what he can do.”
Q. Talk about some of the passes he [Drew Barker] made to Blake [Bone] and some of the others. The intermediate pass. Last year he threw some long, sweet, high passes. He made some line drive passes today like he hasn't done.
“Well, the one that got tipped, you may be referring to, it took a second for the receiver to work open. He was working. He had a couple guys on him. Had an option route. He came clean. By that time the D-line got their hands up and batted it down.
“Oh, Stephen. I thought you were talking about Drew.”
Q. Stephen had thrown a lot of long passes that were sweet last year. Threw a lot of line drives today like he hadn't done, it was really good.
“It was really nice to see – our issue, as you know, in the first half on some plays, was protection. It was the running back one time that I remember. Maybe the O-line here and there at different times. Again, one guy here, one guy there. We were getting breakdowns. It was hurting us because we had some guys open.
“Once our protection got better, you saw that in the second half, I believe it was the first possession of the second half, the double move, the long pass down the boundary. He connected I think with Blake. But that was a really nice pass.
“But it starts with protection. We had good protection on that play.”
Q. How nice was it to see good production out of Blake?
“I was really pleased in general with our guys. We talked about it all week, just making plays, just making plays for the quarterback, defensively making plays. We need guys to step up. We challenged them to do that. It was good to see Blake make those.
“You got to help out your quarterback. You guys all watch a lot of football. You watch it, there's some balls, there's guys covered. Big dudes go up and get the ball. It was nice to see us do that a few times today.”
Q. Talk about the offensive line, something you hung your hat on a season ago. A lot of upheaval, maybe we underestimated how difficult it can be, guys changing position, season-ending injuries, nagging injuries. Has that all added up to being more of a challenge than you hoped?
“It is. I think with the injuries, it definitely is fair to say. I said it from the beginning, that it was unfortunate because it does weaken you some. Have confidence in guys behind, but it just hurts your depth, it hurts your rotation. There's injuries, we're moving guys around, guys get banged up.
“We still rushed for 200 yards. The protection, I got to look at the pass pro. I know the back got beat up on one bull rush. Definitely we gave up some pressures from the O-line as well. They'll get better. If you remember, last year was the same too, they did get better as the year went on. We got much stronger as the year went on at the O-line position.
“That comes with developing guys as well and getting some more guys some reps. We just got to get the trust factor up with some guys, rotate them in some more.”
Q. When the pass protection isn't as effective as it should be, how important is it for Stephen to be able to make plays with his feet?
“It was really nice for him to make that, obviously. That was a big play. He does that. He's made good decisions and he seems to -- you know, for a defense, those are those aggravating, back-breaking runs that happen against us. Sometimes happens against all great defenses. So it's good to see him do that. He made good decisions. Again, he protected the ball today. He protected the ball again.”
Q. Jordan Jones didn’t start today, what was the explanation?
“I'll keep that between Jordan and I.”
Q. Lynn Bowden was ejected from the game. Did you have an opinion on that?
“I had a strong opinion that it was going to stand. No, I had a strong opinion I agreed with them. It's unfortunate. Again, it's a young guy with some inexperience. It was nothing malicious. He tried to lead with his shoulder. He tried to hit the shoulder. But as the rule states, if you make any contact with that face...
“It was nothing malicious, like I said. He really tried to make a good block. He did make some contact. There wasn't a lot. It wasn't a brutal hit or anything like that. But if you make any contact with head-to-head, they're going to call that on an unprotected player.
“It's unfortunate more than anything because, you know, you saw he had some touches on the kick returns. We really wanted to get him going. It stinks for him. I feel bad, but it was just an honest mistake.
“We talk about it all the time, just with peel-back blocks, whether it's kick return, punt return, even an interception, guys want to peel back and take somebody out. You can't do that any more. We really emphasize that. Like I said, it was really unfortunate because he made some contact with the head there.”
Q. What is your general feeling on the targeting rule, being kicked out for the entire game? Too harsh?
“Honestly, I agree with it anymore because we got to get the head injuries out of the game as much as possible. I think it's really helped. We haven't had one for a long time. I can't remember when the last time we had somebody kicked out for targeting. It's been a few years.
Q. Darius West had 11 tackles, didn't start today. What did you see from him?
“I saw, again, a guy play pretty well. He did that last week. He's getting better and better. He needs the experience. He needs the reps. I didn't see any real blatant mistakes. A few things here and there that we got to get worked out, but he's doing some good things.
“He's a physical guy. He did miss the one on the touchdown run. He came clean and missed it on the run in the first half, but he played a good game.”
Q. Defense held to about a hundred yards rushing.
“The rush defense has been really solid. Really solid two games in a row. They rushed for 60 yards, but there were a few aggravating runs. That's to their credit again. They were good. They were balanced for a while, getting just a few yards, keeping us off balance so we couldn't pin our ears back and all that.
“Kept us off balance, and they were efficient. I don't know what they ended up with total, 318? But they were an efficient 318. We got to get some stops. I was pleased with some of the stops we got later in the game, as the game went on.”
Q. You were way down in the rankings in turnover margin last year.
“What was it today? 2-0. Yeah, we're plus-4. We made a strong emphasis on that. That's good to see. You see, it's paid off two games in a row.
“It's very important. We've emphasized it. Sometimes, you know, there's plays when the ball is on the ground, you just don't get it. Last year some of that, we didn't get 'em a lot on the fumbles.
“You just never know with that. That's the luck of the draw, sometimes how the ball bounces. But it's good to be plus-2. Our defense is trying to create some turnovers. Pleased with our offense today, not pulling it down.”
Q. Was the snap a concern?
“Yeah, it's just something, you know, you don't see it as much in practice, so you don't think it's an issue. Then you get out there, all the situations are different. I believe that bad snap was fourth-and-one? So, you get a little anxious maybe.
“Yeah, it hurt us. That's why I said, EKU, you look at them last week, they were moving the ball over. What stalled their drives were some bad snaps last week in the first half. So we've got to do our part and get that cleaned up.”
Q. When Stephen [Johnson] got back in in the second quarter, the offense seemed like it started moving. That's not the first time they’ve kind of been in a bad situation, he's come in and calmed them down. Do they respond to him?
“For sure, I think they respond to him. It comes down to everybody doing their job, too, getting some time and some protection, not having bad snaps, things like that. Just all playing together.”
Q. How encouraged are you to be 2-0?
“That's the whole key. That's the whole key. It feels very good to be 2-0. We know we got a lot more in us. It's a good team. They didn't come in here and want to, like, lay around and not play well. That's not the mentality of this.
“There's a lot of things we can come out play a little better, execute, but it's about us, it's about our discipline, execution, things that we can get fixed.
So we'll play better. We're excited about it. The team's excited about it.”
Q. Regarding Benny Snell’s injury.
“Yeah, those can be painful injuries. They x-rayed him. They were negative. He's fine. It comes down to a bruise.”