JOE COX: Do Stoops' Troops Have Enough To Overcome Missouri Saturday?
In nearly a quarter century of closely following Kentucky football, pretty much everything on earth has come to pass. UK has intercepted seven passes… and lost. UK has held a lead with seconds to play and 75 yards between them and the opponent’s victory… and lost. UK had a 300-pound QB pass for 528 yards… and lost. Not trying to be negative, just trying to be accurate.
But Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium, Kentucky lined up for a 51-yard field goal try that defined the distance between victory and defeat… and nailed the sucker. There are uncomfirmed rumors of a bald middle-aged journalist punching the air in triumph when Austin MacGinnis’ line drive kick drifted between the uprights. But I wouldn’t know anything about that.
Something none of the Big Blue Nation knew much about was last second victory. But with one swing of his right leg, MacGinnis wrapped up a dramatic win, moved UK to 4-3, and… wait for it… assured the ‘Cats a legitimate shot at reaching a bowl game.
The next act? Head to northwest of Paducah on Saturday to take on the struggling Missouri Tigers. If Kentucky wins, not only are the Cats in line to end a six-year bowl drought, but UK is a Georgia upset of Florida away from leading the SEC East standings. In the words of Vice-Presidential candidate James Stockdale, “Who am I? What am I doing here?”
Kentucky is a reachable upset and an easy creampuff opponent (ahem, Austin Peay) away from returning to post-season football. Six weeks ago, this season looked dead on arrival. Now, Mark Stoops could be battling Ed Orgeron for SEC Coach of the Year. Who would’ve guessed?
WHERE WE ARE
Kentucky dramatically pulled out a 40-38 win over Mississippi State on Saturday night. Kentucky held a 34-24 lead with 10 minutes to play and was inside the Mississippi State 10-yard line when QB Stephen Johnson had a costly fumble that the Bulldogs returned for a score. A UK field goal was then answered by a 7-yard touchdown from QB Nick Fitzgerald to WR Fred Ross, and State led 38-37, with just 1:09 to play.
Johnson had an up and down game, but when UK needed him, he passed the Wildcats JUST into MacGinnis’s range for the game-winning kick. Johnson ended up with 292 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns. RB Stanley “Boom” Williams had 99 yards on the ground, and freshman Benny Snell (pictured) had 128 yards and a score. Receiver Jeff Badet had a career game with seven grabs for 139 yards and both of Johnson’s touchdown passes.
Accordingly, Kentucky is at four wins. With horrible FCS opponent Austin Peay coming up in three weekends, the ‘Cats need one more win to get bowl eligible. The next two games—at Missouri and at home against Georgia—look like the best opportunities, and why prolong the inevitable?
WHO THEY ARE
The Tigers are 2-5, and have had their share of struggles under new head coach Barry Odom. With Tennessee and Arkansas remaining on the schedule, Mizzou’s bowl hopes are looking unlikely. The Tigers have beaten only Eastern Michigan and Delaware State, and in their last three games, they lost by 35 to LSU, by 26 to Florida, and last week, took a 51-45 loss to Middle Tennessee.
All of that given, the Tigers are favored by nearly a touchdown.
Sophomore QB Drew Lock has passed for 1,995 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, and a powerful ground game is led by running back Damarea Crockett, who has 546 rushing yards and 7 scores. In the air, WR J’Mon Moore has amassed 539 yards and 6 touchdowns. The Tiger offense has racked up 35 points and 505 yards per game.
But the Tiger defense is vulnerable. It has allowed 30 points and 460 yards per game, and stud LB Michael Scherer is gone for the season.
MTSU is a competent passing team, but Vandy beat them in their stadium in Week 2. A defense that gives up 51 to MTSU isn’t too tough.
WHAT TO EXPECT
There’s reason to see a shootout in this game. Mizzou will likely throw the ball a good deal, but Kentucky has been surprisingly solid on the pass as the season has progressed. There’s no reason to expect UK not to feature Williams and Snell in an effort to grind out yards and keep control of the football.
This is a season-defining opportunity. In so many past years, UK football has been about missing opportunities. But in the midst of some significant turmoil, Mark Stoops has found a way to make a sow’s ear into something resembling a silk purse. After Saturday afternoon, that’ll be a bowl bound sow’s ear, thank you very much.
UK 42, Missouri 35
AROUND THE CONFERENCE
My current power rankings.
Texas A&M (6-1)
Ole Miss (3-4)
South Carolina (3-4)
Mississippi State (2-5)
We’re up to 53-17 for the year, and here’s this week’s picks.
Kentucky 42, Missouri 35
Florida 28, Georgia 24
Mississippi State 42, Samford 7
Auburn 41, Ole Miss 28
Tennessee 31, South Carolina 21
Texas A&M 56, New Mexico State 14
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books, with his most recent, Almost Perfect, to be released in February 2017. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught (Snell photo)