The first couple of possessions couldn’t have gone much worse for the Kentucky offense Saturday.
The Wildcats earned 1 yard on each of their first two plays from scrimmage. On the third, Drew Barker threw an interception and immediately went to the trainer’s table with an injury that kept him out for the rest of the game. The second series featured a 1-yard run by backup quarterback Stephen Johnson II, who then threw two consecutive passes that didn’t get anywhere close to their intended targets.
Before the game against New Mexico State even started, veteran running back Jojo Kemp was all but ruled out with an ankle injury.
The Cats needed someone to produce. They got that production from some unexpected places in what turned out to be a 62-42 victory.
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True freshman Benny Snell — coming into the game with no offensive touches as a Wildcat — carried the ball 17 times for 136 yards and tied a school record with four rushing touchdowns.
Sophomore tight end C.J. Conrad — the top-rated player in UK’s recruiting class of 2015 — came into the game with one reception this season, 16 catches for his career and just one trip to the end zone as a Wildcat. On Saturday, Conrad caught five passes for 133 yards and three touchdowns.
Senior wide receiver Ryan Timmons — the team’s leading pass-catcher in 2013 and 2014 — had just 12 catches last fall and zero over the first two games of this season. He had four catches for 42 yards against the Aggies.
All of that was in addition to Johnson’s stellar play at quarterback (310 passing yards and three touchdowns), Charles Walker’s punt return for a touchdown (the Cats’ first since 2010) and zero sacks allowed by a UK offensive line that gave up nine over the first two games.
“When you picture what our offense could be all year, this is what I thought it could be,” Conrad said. “And it’s exciting to see that. And hopefully we can keep it going.”
Williams got the scoring started with a 63-yard touchdown run on the first play of the Cats’ third possession, but Boom breaking off a big run is not unexpected.
The first big surprise came a few minutes later, when Conrad — listed at 6-5 and 245 pounds — caught a tight end screen, turned toward the end zone and ended up with a 72-yard score.
What was going through his mind on that catch-and-run?
“When am I going to get tackled?” he said afterward. “That’s the first time that I’ve broken away like that since high school, and in high school I was faster than everyone. But I know that I’m not faster than everyone here. I was scared to look at the megatron, because I didn’t want to see who was going to tackle me.
“But it just never happened. … And once I got to the 10, I was like, ‘I may score here.’”
Snell found out just before the game that Kemp, who had been practicing all week, likely wouldn’t be able to go, meaning the true freshman would get some opportunities on offense in addition to his special teams duties.
Williams briefly sidelined with an injury, Snell’s first collegiate carry came on a third-and-1 with the Cats trailing 21-14 at the beginning of the second quarter. The freshman took the ball 18 yards, and he spent the rest of the night bouncing off New Mexico State defenders and stuffing the stat sheet.
Snell found the end zone a few minutes later to tie the game at 28, and the Cats never trailed again.
“It was great,” he said of that first score. “The fireworks, the fans. It was a really good time. Glad I got there. … When I went in there, I really wasn’t feeling anything. I just wanted to do my job. And that’s run the ball.”
Snell became the fifth player in program history to score four rushing touchdowns in a game. He’s only the second freshman to do it, and the first since Don Phelps accomplished the same feat in 1946.
After the game, UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran was thankful for his depth at running back — noting that backups Mikel Horton and Sihiem King have looked good in practice, too — and Snell has been showing that something special ever since he arrived in Lexington.
“He did this in camp, and that’s what we saw,” Gran said. “We saw in camp, ‘Man this kid’s got a chance.’ He’s really a guy that’s hard to tackle, and it was the right time. Having that depth is really good for us.”
UK finished with 692 yards of total offense on 75 plays.
Importantly for this game, the Cats scored 27 points in the second half (after being shut out in the second half against Southern Miss and managing just seven points after halftime at Florida).
Importantly for the future, some guys stepped up when the team needed it most.
“What I want to see is that, when you do have the opportunity, like Benny did, he took advantage of it,” Gran said. “When Stephen Johnson came in, he took advantage of it. Landon Young, took advantage of it.
“And that’s what you gotta do.”