JOE COX: Wildcats Still Searching For Firepower & Identity After Two So-So Victories
Two seasons ago, the Eastern Kentucky Colonels came to Commonwealth Stadium and nearly single-handedly tore down the Mark Stoops coaching era. EKU led by two scores midway through the fourth quarter and UK needed overtime to subdue the Colonels 34-27. That UK team went 5-7 after a quarterback controversy and a disastrous loss at Vanderbilt.
The 2017 Wildcats also flirted with disaster Saturday afternoon, Sept. 9 before pulling away 27-16 over EKU. For a second straight week, Kentucky survived with a victory despite a relatively lackluster effort. Saturday bring a trip to Columbia, South Carolina for the season’s first SEC game, a matchup with the South Carolina Gamecocks.
Most disturbing in the game was Kentucky’s lack of identity. After spending the 2016 season developing into a power running team led by Benny Snell and Stephen Johnson, UK ran almost no Wildcat plays, and on multiple occasions spread out receivers in an attempt at something resembling the old “Air Raid” offense, even calling on QB Drew Barker, who was sacked twice in two series in the game. Down the stretch, Kentucky appeared to get back to basics, rushing for over 200 yards and relying on the passing game mostly for a handful of big plays which keyed the offense in the second half.
The tune-up aspect of the season is over for Kentucky. Another week of failing to block opposing pass rushers or cover opposing receivers or even place good kickoffs will no longer be easy to overcome. The unforgiving playing fields of the Southeastern Conference are not kind to weakness, and this is a Kentucky team that has shown some in the past two games. But before we look ahead, let’s look back on an uncomfortable win.
Despite being pulled for two series in the first half, UK quarterback Stephen Johnson had one of his better games in recent memory. Johnson finished 15 for 22 for 224 yards passing, including a pretty touchdown throw over the middle to tight end C.J. Conrad. He added six carries for 48 yards on the ground, including a tight-roping run down the sideline for 22 yards and a game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter. Through two games, Johnson is fifth in the SEC in QB rating and sixth in passing yardage.
Sophomore running back Benny Snell struggled early, sustaining some bruised ribs and having just three carries for three yards at half. But in the second half, Snell carried 16 times for another 100 yards and a breakaway touchdown that conjured up memories of his 2016 season. His rib injuries will be a concern moving forward, but Snell is expected to be available in week three at South Carolina.
Senior wide receiver Blake Bone had three catches for a career-high 93 yards. In the absence of senior Dorian Baker, Bone has emerged as a possible deep ball threat for Kentucky, and Johnson found him on three long passes, including a gorgeous diving grab down the left sideline for 43 yards. Bone had just 82 yards receiving in the entire 2016 season, but will be a player to watch moving forward.
Talented freshman Lynn Bowden returned two kickoffs and showed signs of blazing speed, but was ejected in the first quarter for a questionable targeting call against an EKU defender on a long Stephen Johnson run. Most analysts felt that the call was shaky, but it deprived Bowden of a chance to feature more prominently in the Kentucky offense for a second week in a row.
Kentucky’s pass coverage was pretty poor, as two EKU quarterbacks combined to go 31 for 43 passing for 256 yards. EKU receivers Ryan Markush and Neiko Creamer combined for 18 catches, 180 yards, and a touchdown. Kentucky cannot afford to play such soft coverage moving forward, as the SEC presents a wealth of more physically imposing receivers.
After a great opening week, Kentucky’s special teams struggled. Austin MacGinnis twice hit low line drive kickoffs that EKU nearly broke for touchdowns. The steady senior also missed a field goal, which hadn’t happened since the 2016 season. Punter Matt Panton got a few poor bounces, and EKU generally won the special teams battle, which is a luxury UK can’t afford to give up, particularly against a South Carolina squad that has been excellent on special teams.
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.