Kentucky’s coaches decided that it didn’t matter what was happening in the game, what kind of streak starting quarterback Stephen Johnson had going, they were going to get some snaps for backup Drew Barker.
That decision got quite a test on Saturday against Eastern Kentucky when Barker went in with the Cats trailing 7-3 at Kroger Field on Saturday.
“We said that we were going to play him on the third series no matter what,” Coach Mark Stoops confirmed of the former starting quarterback who missed most of last season with a back injury. “We did. We have to.
“You know, said the same thing last year when Stephen was a backup. You’re one play away from playing him. … We had to get Drew back out there and get his confidence up and get him playing and get him some snaps, see what he can do.”
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Barker, who had surgery on his back in November, had done all of the things quarterbacks do since then, except take a hit.
It was something he had discussed in the preseason.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Barker said in August of facing contact. “It’s just something quarterbacks usually don’t say but we’re doing as much as we can in practice. Doing crash drills and stuff.”
Barker probably didn’t enjoy two hits he took from Eastern Kentucky, both on sacks that ended drives — UK’s third and fourth series of the game — with three-and-outs.
On the first series he played, the Cats gained one yard. On the next series, UK lost seven yards. Protection improved in the second half, Stoops noted.
It was not the comeback Barker likely had scripted in his head, but it was a big opportunity to see live game action, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said.
“He got some playing time under his belt, and to me that’s huge for him,” Gran said. “That’s a huge deal.”
Bowden makes early exit
Kentucky’s coach said he had no issue with the call that led to star freshman Lynn Bowden’s early ejection.
The top-ranked signee in UK’s 2017 recruiting class was thrown out of the game in the first quarter after being called for targeting while throwing a block during quarterback Johnson’s 34-yard run.
Bowden was ejected after the video review, the Cats were assessed a 15-yard penalty, and Johnson’s run was called back.
“I would agree with them,” Stoops said of the officials’ decision. “It’s just unfortunate. It was nothing malicious. He tried to lead with his shoulder. He tried to hit the shoulder.”
Bowden ducked in with his shoulder to make the block on an Eastern Kentucky defender, but there was contact with the head, too.
It was a disappointing home debut for Bowden, who made waves last weekend after a series of tweets seemingly voicing displeasure with his lack of playing time in a season-opening victory at Southern Miss.
Stoops said he had “no issue” with the freshman’s tweets, and Bowden was the first Wildcat to touch the ball against Eastern Kentucky, returning the opening kickoff 30 yards.
Bowden also had a 21-yard kickoff return later in the first quarter.
‘That’s Benny Snell’
Just a few carries into the game, UK running back Benny Snell experienced a sharp pain in his chest he’d never felt before.
He was taken to the locker room for X-rays on his ribs, but those came back negative. It took him a whole half to get used to that feeling, said Snell, who had a large ice pack under his shirt in postgame interviews.
The sophomore who set six school rushing records last season had 100 of his 103 yards in the second half to help the Cats close out the victory.
“Shows his toughness,” Gran said of Snell, who had 19 carries and a 25-yard touchdown run. “That’s football and that’s Benny Snell. That’s what you’d expect from him.”
Emotional day for Hood
When Dean Hood was fired from Eastern Kentucky in 2015, he thought it was best to cut communication with the players there.
The former head coach, who is now Kentucky’s special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach, thought it was only fair to the players and their new coaching staff.
“That was hard to do, to not stay in communication with the guys even though I thought it was the right thing to do,” Hood said on Saturday after UK’s 27-16 win over the Colonels.
Getting to spend a few minutes with his former players after the game was special to him.
“Got to see a lot of those kids,” whom Hood described as like his own children. “It was great to see them. … That was pretty emotional at the end getting to see those guys.”
On Jones’ back and forth
Kentucky’s Jordan Jones didn’t sit long, but he did not get to start the game, likely in response to widely circulated video of the linebacker having some unflattering interaction with the fans at Southern Miss a week ago.
Courtney Love said he offered some advice to his fellow inside linebacker.
“I told him to just stay composed,” said Love, who had eight tackles on Saturday. “People are going to try to get you out of your game. He’s a guy who has to stay focused because if he doesn’t, things like that get to him.
“It gets the best of all of us. We’re on the road and things like that. Just stay composed ... and just play your game.”
Jones had eight tackles to go with one forced fumble, one pass breakup and one quarterback hurry.
After the game, the junior was seen with a sling on his left arm and ice on his left shoulder. UK officials said they had no injury update on the Cats’ leading tackler last season.
Herald-Leader staff writer Ben Roberts contributed to this report.
Kentucky at South Carolina
7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)