Mark Stoops’ hot take last week after Kentucky escaped Southern Miss with the victory?
“It was a thing of beauty to me,” the Cats’ head coach said.
Stoops met that win’s twin on Saturday in the form of a 27-16 not-always-pretty victory over Eastern Kentucky at Kroger Field.
Again the Kentucky coach didn’t seem concerned about how the win looked, just that it was a win.
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“It feels very good to be 2-0,” Stoops said. “We know we got a lot more in us. There’s a lot of things we can come out play a little better, execute. But it’s about us, it’s about our discipline, execution, things that we can get fixed.
“So we’ll play better. We’re excited about it.”
Kentucky has got to play better — especially better than it did in the first half when it fell behind by 10 points to the Colonels — before it starts Southeastern Conference play on the road at South Carolina next weekend.
“We got some big stops, got some turnovers,” Stoops continued. “Again, did what we had to do to win. We’ll look at all areas. We’ll continue to improve.”
Much like it did in the opener, Kentucky got some key defensive plays, including a forced fumble and an interception in the second half. It held EKU to just a field goal after halftime.
And the Cats’ offense found some continuity in the form of big plays from quarterback Stephen Johnson and steady running from Benny Snell and Sihiem King.
It was Snell’s 25-yard scoring run that helped put Kentucky up for good 17-16 with 2:57 left in the third quarter. The star running back managed 19 carries for 103 yards despite suffering bruised ribs early in the game.
“I don’t like being out,” Snell smiled. “That’s a team we shouldn’t lose to. So that second half, I knew my team needed me.”
A few minutes later, Johnson added a 21-yard scoring run on a botched play that helped give Kentucky some breathing room against the Colonels (0-2).
“I was trying to go to C.J. Conrad on the out route,” Johnson said of his rushing touchdown. “It was kind of covered up. … I tried to escape the pocket. I guess I could’ve run out of bounds, but didn’t. I just kept going inside.”
Those are the kinds of plays that make Johnson so dangerous, Stoops said.
“That was a big play; he does that,” Stoops said of Johnson, who completed 15 of 22 pass attempts for 224 yards and a touchdown. “It’s good to see him do that. He made good decisions.”
Johnson’s passing touchdown came in the first half on a 23-yard pass to Conrad and helped cut the Colonels’ once 10-point lead to three, 13-10, going into halftime. The quarterback also found wide out Blake Bone three times for 93 yards, a career high for the senior.
“We knew we’d have some opportunity balls for him,” Johnson said. “I’m just glad we got a chance to get him a few targets today.”
At the break, Kentucky made some adjustments, mainly in attitude and demeanor, senior linebacker Courtney Love said.
“In the first half, guys were just kind of waiting for something to happen and we didn’t have the energy we had last week in the first half,” said Love, who had eight tackles. “We still were making some plays, but we weren’t as hyped as we were. That’s where we went wrong. In the second half, we really understood what was against us.”
Kentucky outgained Eastern Kentucky 436 to 318 on the night, but UK’s run defense held the Colonels to 62 total yards rushing.
It’s the second straight game the Cats have held an opponent under 80 yards on the ground.
“There were a few aggravating runs,” Stoops said of Eastern. “That’s to their credit again. They were good … I was pleased with some of the stops we got later in the game, as the game went on.”
The Kentucky defense was led by Darius West’s career-best 11 tackles. Josh Allen, Derrick Baity, Jordan Jones and Love added eight tackles each. Baity had his first career fumble return as well.
While Stoops was pleased to be 2-0 no matter how it looked, the Eastern Kentucky coach was frustrated to be 0-2 despite his team playing well in its first two games of the season.
“I couldn’t be more proud of this team and the effort that they displayed,” Coach Mark Elder said. “We’ve got a damn good football team. It’s tough to be 0-2, certainly, but I am certain that we are a good football team. The guys fought hard and made a couple too many mistakes down the stretch.”
Kentucky at South Carolina
7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)