UK Football

Stephen Johnson II deserves more respect for what he’s doing for UK

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson II hurdled Mississippi State cornerback Cedric Jiles during UK’s 40-38 victory over MSU Saturday. In the five games in which Johnson has played the majority of snaps, Kentucky is 4-1.
Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson II hurdled Mississippi State cornerback Cedric Jiles during UK’s 40-38 victory over MSU Saturday. In the five games in which Johnson has played the majority of snaps, Kentucky is 4-1. cbertram@herald-leader.com

Jared Lorenzen started 16 Southeastern Conference games for Kentucky at quarterback before he won his third.

Tim Couch started 13 SEC games for UK before he earned his third league victory.

In his 10th SEC start, Andre Woodson led the Wildcats to a win for the third time.

Those are the three best Kentucky quarterbacks of the past 25 years.

Against that back drop, I don’t think current UK QB Stephen Johnson II is getting enough respect for what he has achieved this season.

Pressed into the Wildcats starting role by Drew Barker’s back injury, Johnson won his third Southeastern Conference game Saturday night, beating Mississippi State in his SEC fourth start.

Kentucky as a team hadn’t won three SEC games in a season since 2009. It hasn’t won four — which the Cats (4-3, 3-2 SEC) will go for at Missouri (2-5, 0-3) Saturday — since 2006.

So I’ve been surprised by how much fan griping I’ve heard directed at Johnson. In the only statistical category that matters — the team win/loss ledger — the transfer from California’s College of the Desert has been stellar.

An injured Barker left after the first series of UK’s third game against New Mexico State. The Wildcats have pretty much been Johnson’s team since.

Kentucky is 4-1 in that time.

“I like the way he’s been doing things,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said Monday at his weekly news conference of Johnson.

It hasn’t always been pretty. Against Vanderbilt, Johnson was dreadful through the air.

The QB was one week removed from taking a physical pounding from the Alabama defense and seemed uncomfortable in the pocket. A swirling wind roiled Commonwealth Stadium. Johnson went 10-of-24 for 49 yards with one pick.

Yet after an open week to rebuild confidence, Johnson overcame some early drops against Mississippi State and threw for 292 yards and two touchdowns. “I felt like we threw the ball better,” Stoops said. “And we had some drops in there early, we could have moved the ball better.”

Seemingly due to a lack of physical strength, the 6-foot-3, 183-pound Johnson has been fumble prone. Eight times this season, Johnson has put the ball on the ground; five times, those fumbles have been recovered by UK opponents.

“Stephen, physically, he has some work to do in the offseason getting stronger,” Stoops said.

On the season, Kentucky QBs have committed 14 turnovers — Barker five interceptions, two lost fumbles; Johnson two interceptions, five lost fumbles.

Johnson lost two of those fumbles in UK’s 40-38 victory over Mississippi State Saturday. The second one, in the fourth quarter with Kentucky leading 34-24, was stripped away while the Kentucky QB was fighting for yardage on a 2nd-and-goal run from the MSU 6.

Instead of the Cats icing the game, State’s Mark McLaurin turned the miscue into an 81-yard scoop-and-score that completely flipped the momentum.

Because it did not show game-management awareness, the play incensed the Kentucky coaching staff.

“That extra yard (Johnson was fighing for) is meaningless,” Stoops said. “Another 40 seconds (run off the clock), go to third down and, at worse, (kick a field goal and) go up 13 is really all he needed to be worried about. That late fumble when you are leading the game, that can’t happen. It was inexcusable.”

Yet here’s where Johnson should have deposited some goodwill in the First National Bank of the BBN.

After his lost fumble turned the game’s tide and Mississippi State eventually went ahead 38-37, the QB came back and drove UK from its own 21 with 1:09 left and into range for Austin MacGinnis’ game-winning field goal with three seconds left.

“I don’t know what (that drive) said about me,” Johnson said after the game. “But I think this offense, it shows we can do anything.”

During his putrid passing game against Vandy, Johnson still picked up a crucial first down with his legs on a 4th-and-1 play in a time-consuming UK fourth-quarter drive that helped secure a 20-13 Cats win.

He did the same thing in UK’s game-winning drive against South Carolina, making a cut-back run for eight yards on 3rd-&-7 from the Carolina 9 to set up Benny Snell’s go-ahead TD run.

“He really does have good poise and resiliency,” Stoops said of Johnson. “In a quarterback, those are good qualities to have.”

Qualities worthy of some respect.

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