Maybe some players would look down at the ball positioned at their own 5-yard line and swallow hard.
Maybe they’d look far off into the horizon, see the end zone 95 yards away and worry about how far they have to go.
But Kentucky’s players seem to like that view and said they’ve started to regain some of that late-game confidence that they had last season when they ground out long drives and got late touchdowns.
The “confidence factor,” as offensive coordinator Eddie Gran called it, started when UK won on a late field goal against Mississippi State a year ago. It continues to grow.
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“It’s like, ‘Hey guys, let’s drive it,’” Gran said this week as UK gets ready to go on the road to Vanderbilt. “It’s like 95 yards and I think the confidence is huge. They really believe that they can do it and that’s huge as a play-caller and for them to feel like they can go do it.”
There is a synergy, a chemistry on the offensive line that has developed since Drake Jackson took over at center and has played nearly every snap beside Bunchy Stallings at right guard and Logan Stenberg on his left for Kentucky (6-3, 3-3 Southeastern Conference).
“Just knowing that we’ve done it” helps in those late-game situations, Jackson said. “We know we can do it, so let’s go do it. That’s where our confidence comes from. … If we play 11 guys on the same page, we know we can gash the other team.”
Last week in the loss to Ole Miss, where the offense had UK in position to win with a late score by Benny Snell in the wildcat formation, there was no hurry and no worry, players said.
“You know we’re doing good, working good as an offense, driving down the field,” Snell said of that last drive. “We’ve just got that edge over the defense, especially if we’re just running it, running it, running it or we’ll run it and then we’ll throw for a long pass and then everybody is running to line up and run it again. Just things like that. That’s how you get that dominant feeling when you’re out there.”
Part of the confidence and calmness comes from quarterback Stephen Johnson, who has come a long way since last season’s game against Vanderbilt when he completed just 10 of his 24 pass attempts for 49 yards with one interception.
“There’s never any panic,” Coach Mark Stoops said of the Cats’ offense in late-game situations. “I think there’s great confidence and I definitely think across the board offensively that we’re going to find the right plays.”
Friends to foes?
They won’t be going head to head Saturday, but two former Woodford County High School offensive line teammates will get to see each other play in person at Vanderbilt.
Jackson, UK’s starting center, said there’s been a little bit of chatter this week with left guard Saige Young, a 6-foot-4, 315-pound sophomore at Vanderbilt.
“A lot of trash talk going on,” Jackson smiled. “It’s all friendly and everything. It’s cool. Coming out of high school we were getting recruited and he ended up going to junior college. I always thought he was an SEC-caliber player, he just had some school work to work out.”
Coming out of Dodge City Community College, Young earned his starting spot with the Commodores in late September. Jackson, who redshirted last year, earned his first start three games ago at Mississippi State.
It should make for plenty of trash talk in the future, Jackson said.
“It was really cool to see him commit to an SEC school, especially in the East because we’ll play him every year,” UK’s redshirt freshman said. “He ended up earning the starting job kind of like I did during the season as it went on, so it’s really cool to see him on film and to know our team will be going up against each other every year now.”
Jackson and Young won’t be the only former teammates turned adversaries on the field this weekend.
Kentucky cornerback Lonnie Johnson might actually go up against friend and former AAU teammate Trent Sherfield, Vanderbilt’s best wideout with 32 catches for 540 yards and three touchdowns this season.
“I talked to him already,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be a fun matchup. I told him my last day talking to him would be Thursday.”
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Vandy senior, the ninth-best receiver in the SEC, had a team-best 86 receptions last season and set a school record for receiving yards (240) against Austin Peay in 2015.
“I’m ready for Trent and Trent says he’s been waiting all season for this, too,” Johnson said.
The matchup has given Johnson something to think about other than the final play against Ole Miss, where he had a hand in the wide receiver’s face in the corner of the end zone, but the Rebels still were able to make the catch that won the game.
It was a rough day for Johnson, who injured his right hand during the game and sported a bulky bandage on it until Wednesday. The junior-college transfer said the bandage probably would be cut off before the game.
That Ole Miss game — with the dramatic final play that didn’t go his way — also happened to be Johnson’s birthday.
“I didn’t really care about my birthday,” he said. “Twenty-two but other than that, I was focused on the game the whole day.”
News and notes
With the suspension of starting punter Matt Panton for a public intoxication charge last weekend, Kentucky will turn to last season’s starting punter against the Commodores.
Grant McKinniss has improved “a bunch from last year” when he finished at the bottom of the league in punt average at 39.2 yards per punt, special teams coach Dean Hood said Wednesday.
“Feel really good about him,” Hood said. “I think he’s gotten better each and every week.”
▪ Vanderbilt (4-5, 0-5) was able to make a quick surge at the end of last season to get bowl eligible. The Commodores still have time to do it with three games left first against UK, then versus Missouri before traveling to Tennessee.
“They’re battling like heck,” Stoops said of Vandy, which is coming off a 31-17 win over Western Kentucky that snapped a five-game losing streak that included losses to two of the nation’s best teams in Alabama and Georgia. “(Vandy) did it a year ago. … I’m sure they’re working hard to get there this year.”
Coach Derek Mason was asked if the team had a little extra to play for with three games left to get two victories and bowl eligibility: “I’m just worried about winning days. I can’t even think that far ahead.”
UK football schedule
Home games in capital letters. Times are p.m.
Sept. 2: at Southern Miss (W, 24-17)
Sept. 9: EASTERN KENTUCKY (W, 27-16)
Sept. 16: at South Carolina (W, 23-13)
Sept. 23: FLORIDA (L, 28-27)
Sept. 30: EASTERN MICHIGAN (W, 24-20)
Oct. 7: MISSOURI (W, 40-34)
Oct. 21: at Mississippi St. (L, 45-7)
Oct. 28: TENNESSEE (W, 29-26)
Nov. 4: OLE MISS (L, 37-34)
Nov. 11: at Vanderbilt, 4
Nov. 18: at Georgia, 3:30
Nov. 25: LOUISVILLE
Arkansas at LSU, noon
Louisiana at Ole Miss, noon
Florida at South Carolina, noon
Georgia at Auburn, 3:30
Kentucky at Vanderbilt, 4
Alabama at Miss. State, 7
New Mexico at Texas A&M, 7
Tennessee at Missouri, 7:30