Maybe there are hundreds of excuses.
Maybe there is no good justification.
But for whatever reason, quarterback Stephen Johnson struggled to complete passes in Kentucky’s victory over Vanderbilt.
The junior-college transfer and his head coach seemed to downplay a sore wrist that he’s had since the Florida game.
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Strong wind played a factor on at least one of the 14 passes the quarterback didn’t complete Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.
Perhaps Johnson’s timing was thrown off by the sacks taken at top-ranked Alabama the week before? Was he looking over his shoulder too much?
Or maybe he was preoccupied with those costly fumbles the week before.
One thing is for sure: Vanderbilt ran complicated coverages at Johnson in just his third official start at UK.
“There were times in the game where he got confused,” UK quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said Tuesday of Johnson’s 10-for-24 passing performance for 49 yards last week.
“His eyes got away from him at times,” Hinshaw said. “He got confused, and when you don’t know where to go with the football, it’s hard to throw on target.”
Whatever the reason or the myriad reasons, Johnson had a bad game.
Struggles have happened before, said Johnson, who was connecting on 63.6 percent of his passes before the Vanderbilt game, which would have been similar to the season completion percentages of recent successful Cats quarterbacks like André Woodson and Mike Hartline and better than standouts like Jared Lorenzen.
“I’ve had some games where things weren’t going my way,” Johnson said. “You always have to come back and you can’t let it sit around and, I don’t know the word, but you really can’t just sit on that one game.
“You have to move on. You have to progress and work on it in practice to get better.”
There are some glaring issues. Johnson’s only passing touchdowns this season came against New Mexico State. Other than that 310-yard performance, his other games have been 135 yards against South Carolina, 89 yards at Alabama and then 49 yards versus Vandy.
Kentucky’s offense hasn’t had a touchdown pass since early in the third quarter on Sept. 17 against New Mexico State when Johnson found tight end C.J. Conrad for a 17-yard score.
Once it became clear that Johnson was struggling against Vanderbilt, Hinshaw wasn’t concerned about the why.
When Johnson got on the phone with his position coach during the game, Hinshaw was calm and reasoned.
“I talked to him and said: ‘Settle down. Let’s go find a way to win, OK?’” Hinshaw relayed. “‘Whatever we got to do to win. And then we’ll figure it out from here, we’ll go to practice, we’ll get it better, But let’s go win this game.’”
Johnson did just that, including twice making key fourth-and-one runs and scoring on the run against the Commodores.
“I had some great runs, but just not able to get the ball to playmakers,” Johnson said in review of the Vandy tape. “Saw a lot of different mistakes I was making with my feet, and my motion, how I was throwing the ball as well — rushing myself. That’s one thing we worked on today. Just calming me down a little bit, letting me look at my reads and working on my progressions.”
The coaches said they’re going to do their part to get Johnson back in a rhythm against Mississippi State on Oct. 22, the next time the Cats (3-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) play.
“I just gotta get him, again, some easy throws, get his confidence going and then when they do some different coverages that end up messing with him, I got to be able to continue — when those happen again because it’s gonna happen again — now we react the right way and we throw the right direction,” Hinshaw said. “So we get that fixed, I think we’re gonna be just fine.”
The Bulldogs, who have a game at BYU on Friday, are 11th in the league in passing defense, giving up 237.2 yards a game as well as 10 touchdowns (to five interceptions).
Eddie Gran, UK’s co-offensive coordinator, saw plenty of reasons for optimism this week in practice. In seven-on-seven drills, Johnson was accurate and poised.
“He is a great competitor,” Gran said of Johnson, who has completed 57.8 percent of his passes for 628 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions while rushing for 95 more yards and a score.
“He’s doing everything he can. But what you don’t want him to do is you don’t want him to press. You don’t want him to get to where he’s afraid and I don’t want to be that. I want him to go out there and play and I believe he’ll do that. I really do.”
So often as a quarterback “you have to take steps backward to make steps forward,” Hinshaw said.
The coach is hopeful that the Vanderbilt game was Johnson’s only big step back.
Mississippi State at Kentucky
Oct. 22, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)