Coming into Saturday’s game with Eastern Kentucky, Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson knew he was coming out for UK’s third and fourth offensive series so former starter Drew Barker could get some reps.
“That was our plan the whole time,” Johnson said. “I was going in for the first two series, and then Drew got the third and fourth.”
Where UK’s script went awry was that by the time Johnson returned to the game on Kentucky’s fifth series, the Wildcats trailed their visitors from the Ohio Valley Conference 13-3.
Unease filled the newly rechristened Kroger Field.
So Johnson did what he has done several times since he replaced an injured Barker in the third game last season: He saved the Wildcats’ skin.
Kentucky (2-0) escaped what would have been an embarrassing defeat to an FCS opponent as Johnson rallied the Cats to a 27-16 victory before a less-than-capacity crowd of 54,868.
Johnson threw for 224 yards and a score — completing 15 of 22 passes — and also ran for 48 yards and a touchdown. For the second straight game, he did not turn the ball over.
From the time the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Johnson re-entered the game with 2:26 left in the first half, UK outscored EKU 24-3.
“For sure, I think (the other UK players) respond to him,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said of Johnson. “But it comes down to everybody (else) doing their job, too.”
UK’s plan to get Barker back to game action made sense. He had not played since a back injury knocked him out for the season after one series against New Mexico State last September. The former Conner High School star underwent surgery last November.
“We thought Drew has been doing really well all through camp and all through practice,” UK quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said. “He’s been competing with Stephen and, like I said, they are really even in this situation. We felt like it was a good time to get Drew in the game.”
Knowing he was going to come off the field did not make the experience any more enjoyable for Johnson. “You definitely want to be the guy in the game,” he said.
When Johnson came back to replace Barker (1-for-2 passing for 5 yards, sacked twice), he performed like a guy with something to prove.
The senior QB immediately drove UK 75 yards — boosted by an EKU face-mask penalty on a third-and-10 sack — to a touchdown. On the drive, Johnson completed passes of 10, 27 and 23 yards, the latter a touchdown to tight end C.J. Conrad.
Even with Johnson playing well, it was a credit to EKU (0-2) and the well-crafted game plan Colonels Coach Mark Elder and his staff brought to Lexington that Kentucky did not take the lead for good until running back Benny Snell rumbled 25 yards for a score with 2:57 left in the third period.
Johnson gave Kentucky breathing room with a 21-yard TD run of his own with 10:09 left in the game, spinning out of a tackle at the 10-yard line to put the Cats up 24-16.
“I don’t know how, it just happened,” Johnson said of the run.
With Eastern vanquished, it means that in games in which Johnson has taken the preponderance of the snaps, Kentucky is 9-4.
The one-time junior-college transfer does not dazzle you with Tim Couch-like passing accuracy or Jared Lorenzen-style arm strength
Yet as he showed last year in rallying UK to victories over No. 11 Louisville, SEC rival Mississippi State and — gulp — the OVC’s Austin Peay, Johnson seems to have a knack for producing when Kentucky most needs it.
On Saturday, after Johnson had bailed the Cats out of trouble again, the UK postgame media scrum had a world-turned-upside down quality.
The tone of media questions to Kentucky offensive coaches was “why not just say Johnson is the quarterback, period?”
Presumably out of respect for Barker — a popular player and former starter — UK co-offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Hinshaw were at pains to emphasize each week remains a QB competition.
Snell kept things real.
Johnson, Snell said, “just makes the overall team better.”
Kentucky at South Carolina
7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)