Stephen Johnson came onto the C.M. Newton Field for warm-ups Saturday wearing a bulky brace on his left knee.
The Kentucky starting quarterback practiced barely at all in the week leading up to UK’s meeting with Austin Peay.
With UK needing to extend Austin Peay’s losing streak to 27 games to secure bowl eligibility, the announcement was made about 30 minutes before kickoff that Johnson would be used only in an emergency.
When Kentucky walk-on Luke Wright threw a pick-six that left UK trailing 13-0 one play into the second quarter, a five-alarm, Big Blue emergency was at hand.
So Johnson did for UK in its bowl-securing win what he had already done for the Cats’ overall season: He saved the day.
With Johnson throwing for two second-quarter touchdowns to steady the Cats, UK (6-5) unleashed a 49-0 barrage that led to a 49-13 win that should send Kentucky to the postseason for the first time since 2010.
“We needed to calm them down, and we did,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said of changing quarterbacks. “Stephen is that way. We’ve talked about that all year, his poise, and he showed that again tonight.”
Johnson came out of Kentucky’s loss to Tennessee with his left knee aching.
“He was banged up, was not able to practice, not able to be on his leg very much,” Stoops said.
On Wednesday, Johnson was able to practice a little. On Friday, Johnson said the UK coaching staff decided he would only play against Austin Peay in a crisis situation.
The Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., product arrived at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday expecting a relaxing time spent watching his teammates become bowl-eligible from the sidelines.
“I did, I did. But they did tell me any dire emergencies, I would have to go in,” Johnson said.
What Johnson saw in the first quarter was Austin Peay (0-11) run 24 plays and gain 134 yards, while UK ran six plays that gained 22. The Governors entered the second quarter up 7-0.
On the first play of the second period, Austin Peay linebacker Gunnar Scholato stepped in front of a Wright pass and rambled 25 yards into the end zone. APSU botched the extra point but led 13-0.
Johnson, listening over the headsets to talk among the UK offensive brain trust, heard his name.
“’Tell Stephen to warm up,’” Johnson said he heard. “Basically, they were going back and forth ‘Do you want to put Stephen in now?’ So I put my headsets down and started warming up.”
On his first play from scrimmage, Johnson uncorked a perfectly thrown bomb to Jeff Badet on a post pattern. It hit the UK wideout in stride and was a certain touchdown pass.
Badet dropped it.
On Johnson’s second drive, he guided Kentucky into the end zone, with fab freshman Benny Snell running for a 30-yard TD on a third-and-15 play.
The third time Johnson got the ball, he went back to Badet on the post and this time the duo connected for 42 yards. That set up a Johnson 14-yard scoring pass to C.J. Conrad.
Johnson concluded his fourth drive by hitting Garrett Johnson for a 40-yard touchdown pass.
That put the Cats up 21-13 at halftime and calmed the jagged nerves of the Big Blue Nation.
In the second half, Johnson did not throw a pass. For the game, he finished 5-for-9 passing for 101 yards and two touchdowns.
Johnson became the UK QB after Drew Barker’s back injury sidelined him after the first series of the third game. At the time, Kentucky was 0-2.
Since, in games Johnson has taken the majority of snaps, the Cats have gone 6-3. The quarterback’s numbers aren’t always gaudy, but under stress, he tends to make winning football plays when they need to be made.
This time, Johnson did it wearing a bulky knee brace on a leg that had been hurting too bad to practice.
Said Stoops: “He’s tough as nails. He came in there tonight and came through again.”
That made the game that made Kentucky bowl-eligible a pretty good metaphor for the 2016 Wildcats season.