The play was designed to be a shovel pass, but Missouri had different ideas.
The Tigers blitzed three and the pocket collapsed on Stephen Johnson. The Kentucky quarterback, knowing he was about to get slammed to the ground by at least two of those defenders, waited until the last possible second to dink it to running back Boom Williams before getting clobbered himself.
“That was a great job by Stephen to be able to stand in there and take that hit and get the pass through,” said Williams, who ultimately took the pass into the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown.
It was a pivotal play on a pivotal drive in UK’s win at Missouri.
“He was supposed to underhand that and he couldn’t because of the pressure, waited for it to clear,” Coach Mark Stoops described later of the score that capped a 12-play, 80-yard drive that ate up 6:21 of the third quarter.
“And again, that’s Stephen making plays that a lot of people don’t completely understand.”
It’s been a point of contention since the junior-college quarterback from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., took over the offense in the third game of the season when starter Drew Barker left with a lingering back injury.
Johnson has been inconsistent at times, throwing for 49 yards in the win over Vanderbilt and 292 the next game, a win over Mississippi State.
He had two lost fumbles in both the State and Alabama games. In all, he’s had eight turnovers and eight touchdowns (seven passing and one running).
But all of those stats aren’t as relevant to Kentucky’s players and coaches as the quarterback being 4-1 as a UK starter and 5-1 in games where he’s taken a majority of the snaps.
Johnson is the first UK quarterback to win four of his first five Southeastern Conference starts since starting lineups were made available in 1993.
The adlibbed touchdown play to Williams is a perfect illustration of the plays that have made Johnson so important in this stretch in which UK has won five of six games heading into the Georgia (4-4, 2-4 SEC) game on Saturday.
“It doesn’t always look pretty, but he’s making plays,” Stoops continued. “Those are the type of things where he’s making plays to put us in a position to go win football games.”
The coach has said multiple times in many different ways that he doesn’t believe Johnson is getting enough credit for those types of plays.
“We may not be completing a certain number of passes, but he’s making football plays when we need him to, whether it be a scramble or a play like that,” Stoops said.
The coaches know that the turnovers are unacceptable and they’ve been working to correct them, but some of those are Johnson being new. Some of them are the junior needing to get bigger and stronger to play in the SEC.
But it’s something Johnson doesn’t do that pleases his coaches.
He doesn’t panic.
“As far as calmness and not getting too high and not getting too low, it’s incredible,” UK quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said of Johnson. “You can talk to him and he’s exactly the same guy after he throws a touchdown as after he makes a huge mistake.”
What makes Johnson so calm?
Even he doesn’t know.
“I guess I try to stay as relaxed as I can, try to stay as chill as I can,” Johnson said. “Maybe it’s a California thing. I don’t know. … I really just try to stay as relaxed as I can.”
In a lot of ways that California cool has rubbed off on his UK teammates. The offense seems comfortable under pressure like in that final drive to set up the winning field goal against Mississippi State.
So Kentucky is living with some of the problematic plays by Johnson because it also gets some clutch plays from him, like big fourth-and-1 quarterback runs against Vanderbilt.
“There’s about six plays a game where you want to say, if you’ll do the right thing, we’re going to be really, really good,” Hinshaw said. “We’ve got to eliminate those six plays a game.”
That will be pivotal against a Georgia defense that leads the league in turnover margin, forcing seven fumbles and nine interceptions.
There are plenty of signs of Johnson’s growth as a decision-maker and signal-caller like the three passes he threw out of bounds instead of taking a sack or having the ball stripped by Missouri, Hinshaw said.
And shortly after each of those discarded balls, a big play happened for the UK offense, which his position coach called “progress.”
Johnson is managing the offense and making plays. And the offense has moved under him.
“He’s got a confidence about him,” Hinshaw said. “There’s a lot of confidence that’s going around with the kids with him and also him with the rest of the offense, which is what you want your quarterback to do.
“So, we’ve got to continue to do that and obviously we’ve had some good offensive performances and we’ve got to continue to do it this week.”
Georgia at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)