It was there a week ago, but it went missing on Saturday at Kroger Field.
“We just didn’t have that edge,” a perplexed Eddie Gran said.
Kentucky’s 24-20 win over Eastern Michigan required some special plays on special teams and a couple of key interceptions at the end — including a pick on a Hail Mary pass in the final seconds by Mike Edwards — but at least it was a victory.
“We found ways to win the football game when we did not play our very best,” Coach Mark Stoops said, before adding: “There’s no excuse for not playing our best at home.”
It looked like the game was won for Kentucky, which went up 10 points early in the fourth quarter on a Benny Snell 12-yard scoring run.
But the offense couldn’t get those grind-it-out first downs needed late in the game to keep Eastern Michigan from keeping it far too interesting for the home crowd.
“This shouldn’t have been how it was,” Snell said of the final score, of the big stops in the final minutes required to top the Eagles. “That shouldn’t have been how it was at all. We’re going to get better.”
They have to get better, Gran said. “We didn’t do enough on offense to help our team today.”
When the Cats’ offense, which was held to a season-low 228 total yards, couldn’t find answers, the defense had a few.
“We know we’ve got to pick each other up,” said Edwards, who had a team-best eight tackles to go with his upset-preventing pick. “The offense picks us up sometimes. It’s our time to pick the offense up, so that’s what we did.”
A Kendall Randolph interception near the end zone with six minutes to play seemed to seal the UK victory, but the UK offense failed to fire again and the Eagles (2-2) weren’t done yet.
They marched the ball 40 yards in six plays and pulled within four points, 24-20 on Ian Eriksen’s 2-yard touchdown run. Paulie Fricano missed the extra point to keep a game-tying field-goal attempt out of the mix.
Randolph, who had a big pick, wasn’t the only Kentucky player to have a first in the victory. Other career firsts included first-half touchdown catches for tight end Greg Hart (a 20-yarder from Stephen Johnson) and wide receiver Tavin Richardson (a 7-yarder from Johnson).
Johnson, who spent much of the game on his back because of the five sacks, completed 18 of 27 passes for 175 yards and the two touchdowns.
The Eagles, who came into the game with just 19 tackles for loss and seven sacks in their first three games, had 10 and five, respectively, against the Cats.
“We weren’t all the way into this game at times,” Johnson said. “Definitely at times we were focused, ready to go and moving the ball. But a few times we weren’t all the way ready to play this game. That’s just something we as a team have to fix.”
As has been a trend in recent weeks, Kentucky fell behind early, this time on a Johnson fumble on the opening play, which the Eagles immediately turned into a touchdown.
On its first play of the game, Eastern Michigan’s Brogan Roback found Sergio Bailey for a 20-yard touchdown pass. Roback completed 26 of his 43 pass attempts for 256 yards and a touchdown.
On its next possession after the fumble, UK evened it up with Johnson guiding the Cats 75 yards down the field on eight plays before finding Hart. Kentucky went up 14-7 on the Richardson touchdown catch, but couldn’t hold the advantage.
On a trick play, Eastern Michigan burned UK’s defense and Johnnie Niupalau caught a 43-yard touchdown pass to even it up 14-14 midway through the second quarter.
What felt like a never-ending 14-14 tie was snapped with six minutes left in the third quarter when Austin MacGinnis made a 39-yard field goal.
The Cats could’ve had more than three points on that drive, which started on a Tristan Yeomans fumble recovery of a muffed punt. Instead, a sack of Johnson — the fourth of the game — followed by a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty on Bunchy Stallings forced the field-goal attempt.
It looked like easy points were coming early in the fourth quarter with UK starting the drive on the 24-yard line of Eastern Michigan, but an intentional grounding penalty helped negate that.
It was that way a lot for Kentucky on Saturday night.
“We’re doing things on our own and hurting ourselves,” Snell said. “This team has grown and has taken way bigger steps to overcome worse situations than this, but we’ve just got to get better.”
Missouri at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC)