Let’s start with the good news.
In a season where Kentucky’s hiking of the ball in pistol formations has been an adventure in errancy, UK made it through a whole game without one bad snap.
“No snap hit the ground,” UK offensive line coach John Schlarman said. “That’s the first time this year. So that’s improvement in that area.”
Otherwise Saturday, Kentucky’s offensive line — so integral to last season’s TaxSlayer Bowl trip — had a day to forget.
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Led by a stout defense and some big special teams plays, Kentucky won a grinder over Eastern Michigan 24-20 before a Kroger Field crowd announced at 50,593.
The Cats won even though EMU’s defensive front — a Mid-American Conference defensive front — flat whipped the Cats’ line.
UK (4-1) surrendered five sacks, gave up 10 tackles for loss and ran for a measly 53 yards.
“Not physical enough,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “Not running the ball right now. And not protecting well enough. And that falls right here.”
Stephen Johnson, the Kentucky quarterback, spent a good bit of his Sept. 30 looking up at the sky from the turf.
“I got hit a lot,” Johnson said. “But I don’t worry about that. I always say ‘I bend, but I don’t break.’”
In a sense, the tone for UK’s struggle up front was set on the Wildcats’ first play from scrimmage.
Johnson dropped back to pass, looking for a lighting strike to Garrett Johnson on a deep post.
Instead, he was sacked and stripped of the ball by Eastern Michigan’s standout rush end, Jeremiah Harris. Defensive tackle Dio Dawson recovered at the UK 20.
On the next play, EMU took a 7-0 lead on Brogan Roback’s 20-yard scoring pass to Sergio Bailey.
Said Gran: “We just can’t be putting our defense in a position like that.”
Back in the summer, it was expected that Kentucky’s offensive front would be a strength.
A season ago, UK developed an effective nine-man rotation — two-platooning at every position but center — that helped the Cats produce not one but two 1,000-yard rushers.
With seven of those nine linemen expected to return, the theory was that Kentucky would again control teams up front.
Which has not happened.
In part, the impact of losing veteran center Jon Toth may have been underestimated. Bunchy Stallings, a starting guard a year ago, was projected to replace Toth.
A preseason knee injury knocked starting left tackle Cole Mosier out for the season.
Starting guard Nick Haynes suffered a substantial weight loss (as low as 260) as he manages Type-1 diabetes.
To compensate, UK has tried Haynes some at center, too.
“Maybe we’ve been shuffling guys too much,” Schlarman said. “Maybe we need to settle that down some.”
In fairness, Eastern Michigan may be a MAC foe, but its defensive line is good.
“They had given up two touchdowns in regulation all year,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said. “So we knew they’re a very good, sound football team.”
Even as frustrating as giving up 10 tackles for loss was, it might have bothered UK more that the Cats had so much trouble running the ball.
Kentucky faced a 3rd-and-3 from its own 47 inside the last two minutes in a situation where a first down would have ended the game.
Instead, UK power back Benny Snell got only 1 yard.
The Cats had to punt the ball back to EMU and then withstand a Hail Mary thrown into the Kentucky end zone on the final play of the game.
Last year, UK was good at “running out victories” at the end of games.
This year, for Kentucky’s offensive line, it’s been a slog.
Afterwards, Schlarman said not one Kentucky offensive lineman “played up to standard” and said his assessment of his own performance was the same.
When a reporter asked Schlarman why he included himself, the UK offensive line coach asked, “Did you watch the game?”