By LARRY VAUGHT
Maybe it is my age. Maybe it’s my lack of football knowledge. Maybe it is my lack of respect for Kentucky football history. Or maybe I’ve just become too much of a believer in coach Mark Stoops and what he says he can do.
Whatever the reason, I was not disappointed that Kentucky “only” beat Southern Mississippi 24-7 last week.
Sure, a bigger winning margin would have been nice. It would have been great if quarterback Stephen Johnson had aired out a couple of touchdown passes or Benny Snell had steamrolled his way to 200 or more yards.
But remember this — it was the second straight regular season road victory for Kentucky. The Cats closed last season with a win at Louisville when they were a 27-point underdog. Now they have opened the season with a road win over a team that beat them in Lexington last season.
Kentucky lost its leading rusher from last season and had just one of its top four receivers from last year playing. The Cats lost two players to graduation from their nine-man offensive rotation last season, had another player out with a season-ending injury and got another player hurt early in the game. Against a defense that was stacked to stop the run, UK got just 78 yards rushing and only 254 total yards.
But Kentucky won and on the positive side, it got the ball to tight end C.J. Conrad. So what if quarterback Stephen Johnson was not extremely sharp. It was game one. It was also the EIGHTH time Johnson has been the winning quarterback at UK. When it counts most, he makes play. I like that trait in a quarterback.
“The two plays that we cannot miss are third down throws when they’re open and we miss them,” Stoops said Monday. “That kills drives.”
It does. So did the red zone fumble by Benny Snell that cost UK a touchdown. However, all that can be fixed.
Remember Texas A&M led UCLA 44-10 in the second half — and lost. Maryland went to Texas and won. Ask Tennessee about stopping the same Georgia Tech option offense that UK could not in last year’s TaxSlayer Bowl. Or how can the Florida offense look so bad when the state is loaded with fast, big and skilled athletes.
The defense was not perfect, but Stoops said he had 24 players had “production” on defense, including three nose tackles. I thought linebackers Denzil Ware and Josh Allen were superb again and true freshman Josh Paschal is going to be really, really good.
“We played eight interior defensive linemen at three spots and all eight produced. All four outside backers produced. I want to say nine guys played in the secondary,” Stoops said. “That's encouraging, to see not much drop off or no drop off. That's good to see. Says a lot about the development of our team and our program.”
It does and that’s a BIG reason to be encouraged, not discouraged, by what we saw Saturday.
Then there is punter Matt Panton, the Columbia graduate transfer. He had five kicks inside the 20 with two inside the 1-yard line. Only once did he put the ball into the end zone. That’s a big-time weapon to go with placekicker Austin MacGinnis, who had two game-winning kicks last year.
But here’s another reason to be encouraged — Kentucky won without production from some players I know are going to make their presence felt. Freshman receiver Lynn Bowden didn’t get a touch, but he will. Redshirt freshman running back A.J. Rose did not play, but he will. Paschal is going to play more and more. The list could go on, too.
Then there is this intangible that only a coach can really sense. Pay attention what Stoops said about the opening-game win.
“I felt like the team was very united, very unselfish. Maybe not exactly real pleased with their individual play at time but happy to get the team victory. It's not so much about how an individual plays, it's more about how the team plays when you're in the game,” Stoops said.
Sounds simple, but winning teams get that.
“I think our team is starting to have that mentality more,” Stoops said.
I agree and that’s why I didn’t see anything Saturday that made me believe Stoops’ Cats can win at least eight games. Sure, I could be wrong but I could also be RIGHT.
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