Perhaps there is no better testimony to how far Kentucky football has come than that there was massive grumbling on Sunday from the Big Blue Nation after the team’s season opening 24-17 victory at Southern Mississippi. Fan dissatisfaction from Wildcat football backers is nothing new, but to hear it after a victory is somewhat unusual.
To be candid, Kentucky was not sharp in the opener. The Wildcats never trailed, but were outgained by Southern Mississippi in total yardage, 364-254. In many ways, this game was the mirror opposite of last year’s game with Southern Miss, when a dominant Kentucky offense played out to a big lead only to watch the defense fritter the game away late, 44-35. This time, it was the offense which gagged and sputtered, but the defense would not be denied.
On a week when two SEC squads lost their openers and another needed double overtime to escape, the biggest statistic coming out of Week One for Kentucky is undoubtedly this: 1-0. UK will begin cleaning up its shaky offensive scheme and will continue to build on its defensive demolition this coming Saturday in the home opener against local FCS foe, Eastern Kentucky.
Here are a few takeaways from an ugly win:
It was nice to see QB Stephen Johnson twice complete the pop pass to TE C.J. Conrad which had bedeviled Kentucky’s game planners all season in 2016. It’s a timing play, and by successfully getting the ball to Conrad in rhythm, Johnson managed Kentucky’s longest play of the day (59 yards) and their second touchdown (a 23-yard connection). Conrad was often-underutilized in both 2015 and 2016, so it was good to see him end up with three catches for 97 yards and a score.
Kentucky’s much-maligned front seven showed up in a big way. DE/OLB Denzil Ware and OLB Josh Allen each had a sack, and Ware’s scoop and score fumble recovery touchdown ended up being the difference in the game. The big guys in the trenches also did well, like Adrian Middleton (5 tackles) and (gulp) Matt Elam (4 stops, including a tackle for loss). Southern Miss’s dangerous ground game (which piled up 262 yards last season against UK) was held to 55 total yards and a miserly 1.4 yards per carry.
Senior transfer punter Matt Panton had a debut to remember. After Kentucky’s numerous woes with both kick direction and placement, the Aussie-style punter who transferred from Columbia University had a phenomenal first game. Panton averaged 42 yards on nine punts and twice delivered punts that we touched down at the one-yard line. Five of his nine kicks were downed inside the USM 20.
Kentucky’s passing game was very hit and miss, as Johnson twice missed wide open receivers for possible big gains. None of the talented targets really stepped up either, as the top production from a wideout was Garrett Johnson’s modest two catches for 22 yards. Somebody has to answer the bell here.
Even more damaging, the Kentucky ground game was terrible. Benny Snell never found much of a lane to run in, and ended his day with 20 carries for a very pedestrian 67 yards. As a team, UK averaged 2.2 yards per carry, and the long running play on the day was ten yards. That has to change in a hurry.
The Kentucky secondary underperformed a bit. JUCO Lonnie Johnson, to name one player, got lost in coverage a few times. Kentucky held down USM’s passing attack in the first half (only 87 yards), but allowed 222 yards in the air in the second half, which let the Golden Eagles get back in the game. Many of the problems were depth problems, as cramps and stingers knocked a few starters out. UK’s reserves have to be ready to play next time.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books. His most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games) is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.