As everyone predicted, the winning quarterback was the story of the 2016 Kentucky-Louisville game.
What few would have imagined was that the QB leaving Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium with both the Governor’s Cup and the Howard Schnellenberger MVP Award was not Louisville’s Lamar Jackson.
Stephen Johnson stole the Heisman Trophy favorite’s thunder.
“He’s a Heisman quarterback,” Johnson said afterward. “He’s extremely phenomenal. But anybody I compete with, I want to do a little bit better than them.”
Austin MacGinnis booted a 47-yard field goal with 12 seconds left to give UK (7-5, 4-4 SEC) an electrifying rivalry upset of No. 11 Louisville (9-3, 7-1 ACC) before a crowd of 54,075 mostly shocked U of L fans.
It was Kentucky’s first victory in the Governor’s Cup rivalry since 2010 and first win in seven meetings over a Bobby Petrino-coached U of L team.
What was a total Kentucky team effort was led by Johnson, a reed-thin junior-college transfer. With Louisville often having eight men stacking the box to stop UK’s potent rushing attack, Johnson made them pay.
The 6-foot-2, 183-pound transfer from the College of the Desert completed 16 of 27 passes for 338 yards and three long touchdowns (75 yards, 63 and 35). The former Grambling State QB also led Kentucky rushers with 83 yards on eight timely carries.
“Stephen Johnson was really amazing,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said. “He’s just so poised. And he threw the deep ball beautifully.”
Asked to rank Johnson’s performance on a scale of 1 to 10, Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran didn’t hesitate.
“Ten,” Gran said. “His legs got us out of stuff. His decision-making, his accuracy. I thought he was phenomenal.”
In what was the difference in the game, Johnson turned the ball over one time — an interception that skipped off the hands of UK wideout Garrett Johnson.
Conversely, in an otherwise brilliant effort, Louisville’s Jackson (281 yards passing; 171 rushing) committed four miscues — three interceptions and one game-changing lost fumble.
Late in a thrill-ride of a football contest that saw the lead continually changing hands, the game ended up in the hands of the quarterbacks.
With the game tied at 38, a Benny Snell fumble gave Louisville the ball at its own 45 with 5:42 left.
Working his magic with arm and legs, Jackson worked the Cardinals down the field. Louisville had a first-and-goal at the UK 9 when Jackson lost the football while scrambling for yardage on a read-option play.
Kentucky’s Courtney Love fell on the ball at the 11 with 1:45 left.
Now, the game was on Johnson’s racket.
After Jojo Kemp ran for 9 yards, Johnson hit Jeff Badet for a 29-yard gain. The QB then tucked the ball and ran for 15 yards to the Louisville 36.
A 5-yard Johnson pass to Ryan Timmons in between Kemp runs of 2 yards and 1 yard put UK at the 28 — and allowed MacGinnis to hit his second game-winning field goal of 2016.
What a ride it’s been for Johnson and UK in 2016. The Wildcats were off to an 0-2 start when Drew Barker’s injured back sidelined him for the season in the third game vs. New Mexico State.
It hasn’t always been pretty, but in the 10 games since with Johnson at the controls of the UK offense, the Cats are 7-3.
Yet, for whatever reason, some UK followers have seemed unwilling to give Johnson much credit.
Maybe it’s because he started his career at Grambling of the FCS or because he was an unheralded junior-college recruit. Maybe it’s because of Johnson’s early-season case of fumble-itis.
What should be clear now is the UK QB deserves a different appraisal.
“Stephen is a remarkable, remarkable young man,” said Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart. “His humility, his emotional presence is unbelievable.”
Said Kentucky tight ends coach Vince Marrow: “That dude is just so calm and collected. To the Big Blue Nation, this is our guy.”
Stephen Johnson is the guy who came to The ’Ville as UK’s quarterback and left with a victory over Lamar Jackson.