What’s the adage about beauty being in the eye of the beholder?
Behold Mark Stoops after Kentucky’s 24-17 victory at Southern Miss on Saturday to open the season: “It was a thing of beauty to me,” he said. “I know a lot of people are going to have their own opinions, but I loved it.”
Fans might gripe about a game being too close, about Kentucky’s highly touted offensive line struggling, about a run game that relied too heavily on a wildcat formation that sputtered, about a Southeastern Conference team being outgunned 364 yards to 254 yards on offense.
“We’ve got to do whatever we have to do to win football games,” he said. “Last year we threw the ball for 400 yards and had a big first half and we lost. Isn’t that what it’s all about? We want to be really good in all areas, but the bottom line is winning games.”
Kentucky (1-0) walked away with the win courtesy of three forced fumbles, including one that led to a 20-yard return for a touchdown and another that gave the offense excellent field position to march one into the end zone early.
“Huge, huge, very, very big,” Stoops said. “We talked about that; we had to win the turnover margin. The defense creating the turnovers was very big.”
It came courtesy of some heady plays by tight end C.J. Conrad, who caught three passes for 97 yards and a score, a 23-yard touchdown pass from Stephen Johnson to put the Cats up 14-3 in the first half.
It was a win that came courtesy of a defense that managed to get the stops when needed against a team that it couldn’t stop a season ago in Lexington.
“That shows a lot of character, a lot of guts, a lot of determination to come out and win that game when you’re not playing your best football,” said Stoops, whose defense had a key stand in the final three minutes of the game to hold off a chance of a late rally by the Golden Eagles (0-1).
Kentucky held star running back Ito Smith to 37 yards on 16 carries and held Southern Miss to 55 yards on the ground. But Kwadra Griggs managed 222 yards through the air and twice found Korey Robertson for touchdown passes in the second half.
The first score, a 42-yarder early in the third quarter, pulled the Eagles to within four points, 14-10. The second, with 12:42 to play, helped them get within a touchdown, 24-17.
But the Cats’ offense was not its best.
Benny Snell, who set six freshman records last season for Kentucky, had just 67 yards on 20 carries, with a long run of just 10 yards.
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran lamented that he was too “stubborn” about using the wildcat formation.
“Probably could’ve opened it up a little bit,” Gran said. “Defense had it handled. They were really getting after their tail and part of me wishes probably that I had opened it up a little bit, but at the same time, we’ve got to be tough, we’ve got to run the ball.”
Gran put as positive a spin on a victory where UK couldn’t convert on 10 of its 13 third-down tries as he could.
“We can get better everywhere,” he said. “That’s the great part about this. At this time last year, I didn’t feel very good at all. I’m fired up. I can’t wait because all we can do is get better. We have a long way to go.”
The Cats’ first offensive touchdown came on an 8-yard designed run for quarterback Stephen Johnson to make it 7-0 early, set up by a Josh Allen forced fumble recovered by Denzil Ware. Allen had five tackles, including three for a loss as well.
Courtney Love led the Cats with nine tackles, including one for loss and a fumble recovery. Ware, who had three tackles, had one forced fumble and recovered two others, one of which he returned 20 yards for a touchdown (the Cats’ only touchdown of the second half). The Cats forced just eight fumbles all of last season.
Johnson completed 11 of 20 passes for 176 yards. He connected with Conrad for a 23-yard pass with seven minutes to go in the first half to give UK a 14-3 lead at the break.
“If you see C.J. running down the field wide open, you’ve got to be able to get him the ball,” Johnson said. “That was my problem last year. … We got a lot better at it.”
Much like his coaches, Johnson saw a lot of places he — and the entire offense — could improve.
But most importantly, the quarterback said: “I just wanted to get the (win). Even though it was an ugly one, we got it.”
Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky
Noon Saturday (SEC)