Mark Stoops: A step in the right direction
If you’re a Kentucky fan and your glass is half empty, there’s the 500 yards given up to New Mexico State, one of the nation’s worst offenses this season playing without its star running back.
If you’re a Kentucky fan and your glass is half full, the Cats won their first game of the season 62-42 at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday and found some important playmakers in the process.
Though after the first series — after UK lost starting quarterback Drew Barker for the game to injury — it looked like all Kentucky fans would prefer a glass overflowing with something stronger than 90 proof.
C.J. Conrad, the Kentucky tight end who nearly matched his career yardage in one game with five catches for 133 yards and three touchdowns, is going to keep his glass full.
“Nothing was going to help this team but a win,” Conrad said. “That’s what we needed and we got it and now we’re on the right track. We know what it feels like to win and hopefully we can keep it going.”
Backup quarterback Stephen Johnson, a junior-college player who joined the team in January, starred in Barker’s absence, throwing for 310 yards and three touchdowns while running 10 times for 51 more yards.
Then there was true freshman Benny Snell, who ran 17 times for 136 yards and four touchdowns, matching the school record for rushing scores in a game after not having a carry in the first two games.
“You see him keep those legs churning and hitting guys and playing physical and he played much more mature than a true freshman and that was really good to see,” head coach Mark Stoops said after the win.
It’s likely that Snell’s record isn’t the one that will be discussed from this game, which set a school record for points scored in regulation with 104.
In a game full of crazy in front of a stadium that appeared less than half full (announced attendance was 49,669), the two teams racked up 1,192 yards of total offense.
Stoops didn’t care how the win came, only that it did after the Cats’ 0-2 start.
“Good victory, we’re always going to be proud and take any victory, any which way we can and we’re going to learn from it and get better and we’ll push forward,” he said.
Kentucky’s defense has plenty of education coming after giving up 500 yards to New Mexico State (1-2).
The Cats have given up 500 or more yards in every game so far this season and four times in their last 15 games. They have given up 400 or more yards in nine of the last 15 games.
But unlike in previous games where Kentucky had allowed opponents to score out of the half, which was tied 35-35 on Saturday, Kentucky (1-2) got a stop.
“We made a lot of plays, a couple of three-and-outs, made plays and got off the field,” said UK’s Mike Edwards, who had a game-high 12 tackles. “That’s big. Huge.”
It definitely helped.
Stoops told his team “not to flinch” like it had in previous losses.
“We can’t do that,” he said. “You got to just get them corrected, learn from our mistakes. … So, just settle in and do what they’re coached to do.”
In all, Kentucky’s offense amassed 692 yards of offense, its most since it managed 801 yards against Louisville in 1998 and most ever in a home game. UK had 381 yards rushing behind Snell, Boom Williams (18 carries, 181 yards, one TD) and Johnson.
The backup quarterback impressed his head coach.
“He really calmed down and made some good decisions, because early on it was a little rough and he settled in and he has a lot of poise,” Stoops said. “And that we need right now.”
And when the defense needed a stop, with the Aggies driving and threatening to make what could’ve been a rout a game again, cornerback Derrick Baity made a key interception in the end zone of Tyler Rogers, who had thrown for 246 yards and two touchdowns while rushing 15 times for 70 yards and two scores.
“It was big for the whole defense because they were knocking on the door,” Baity said. “We’ve got to get into our mentality of flipping the switch. The defense came to me, they were cheering, but it’s a natural play.”
It was an unnatural day in a lot of ways, but a win is a win and Kentucky goes into a key Southeastern Conference Eastern Division game against South Carolina with some confidence.
“I know we’ll get better. I really do,” Stoops added. “We’ve got a good football team, we don’t have a great football team, we have a good football team and they will get better. Defensively, we got a lot of things to iron out, but we’ll get better.”
South Carolina at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC)