Though they came from different starting points — one from California with a side trip through Louisiana; the other from Ohio through the corn country of Nebraska — their journeys at Kentucky have walked parallel paths. Both were transfers. Both rose to starters at arguably the most important position on opposite sides of the ball. Both became leaders.
Saturday when Kentucky faces archrival Louisville at Kroger Field, it’s not just this year’s renewal of the Governor’s Cup, it’s the final time quarterback Stephen Johnson and middle linebacker Courtney Love will step onto the field in front of the home folks.
“There will be a lot of mixed emotions probably,” said Johnson this week. “Just happy to be on the field, but also knowing last time on Kroger Field. Definitely lot of mixed emotions.”
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“I think definitely it will be emotional,” Love said. “But you can’t let that get in the way of doing what I need to do as far as winning the football game and playing defense.”
He has that right. Emotions aside, Saturday’s regular-season finale is huge for both teams beyond the ownership of traditional bragging rights. Both are 7-4. Both have clinched bowl bids. Both would rather pack an 8-4 record for their bowl trip rather than lug a 7-5 mark to that destination.
That’s where Johnson and Love figure to play significant roles come Saturday’s noon kickoff. As leader of the offense, Johnson will be facing the pressure of duplicating his performance of a year ago when the Cats upset the Cards 41-38. As the leader of the defense, Love is charged with the task of containing Lamar Jackson, the Louisville quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
Start with Johnson, who began his college career at Grambling State University before transferring to a junior college back near his home in California. Searching for a backup to Drew Barker, UK spotted Johnson on film and brought him to Lexington. Barker injured his back. Johnson took the starting spot and never let go.
If Johnson didn’t outplay Jackson a year ago, he more than held his own, completing 16 of 27 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for 83 yards, including a key 15-yard scramble on the drive that produced Austin MacGinnis’ game-winning 47-yard field goal.
Running back Benny Snell has been a force down the stretch, squeezing 566 rushing yards out of the last four games. To beat Louisville, however, the Cats will need to hit some big throws with Johnson’s arm as well as pick up key yardage with his legs.
“You try to approach this game like every other game,” Johnson said Tuesday. “Obviously you look at the defense, you look at what they’re doing but the approach is the same.”
It can’t be quite the same for Love, who recovered the Jackson fumble last year that led to UK’s final drive, and whose defense again faces the nation’s most electric quarterback. “He’s the best player in college football, I don’t care what they say,” UK linebacker Denzil Ware said this week.
From Stoops’ hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, Love started his college career playing for another Youngstown native, Bo Pelini at Nebraska, before transferring to UK. He sat out 2015, earned the starting job in 2016 and expanded his game and personality the past two seasons. On the field, Love moves faster and has learned to trust his instincts. Off the field, he is an undisputed leader.
“What a guy to represent your program from a character standpoint,” said defensive coordinator Matt House this week. “My wife says it all the time, ‘I hope our daughter marries somebody like Courtney Love.’ That’s the kind of character kid he is.”
Same can be said for Johnson and many of the UK seniors playing their final home game Saturday. That happens to be against Louisville.
“To win would be really big, not just for going on after this but because of the game it is,” Johnson said. “It’s Kentucky-Louisville. It’s for that Governor’s Cup sitting right over there. So it’s really big, not just for afterward but for the moment right now.”
Louisville at Kentucky
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 7-4 (4-4 SEC), Louisville 7-4 (4-4 ACC)
Series: Kentucky leads 15-14
Last meeting: Kentucky upset No. 11 Louisville 41-38 on Nov. 26, 2016, at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.