The blocked punt that helped secure the victory for Kentucky almost never happened.
The Cats’ special teams coach, Dean Hood, went to Mark Stoops and asked the head coach if he wanted to play it safe or go after the punter in the tight game.
“The kids were telling me, ‘Coach, we can get it,’” Hood said he told Stoops.
At first Stoops wanted to go the safe route, make sure UK got possession.
The special teams unit was about two yards out onto the field when the coach had a change of heart.
“I’m glad I did,” Stoops said of the blocked punt by true freshman Josh Paschal that helped set up the 12-yard touchdown run for Benny Snell that gave UK a 24-14 lead with 11:56 to go. “So we went after it and got the block, and that was a big play in the game.”
It was just one of many huge special teams moments in the game.
There was a career-long 71-yard punt for graduate transfer Matt Panton.
There was yet another series of big plays by gunner Charles Moushey, who helped flip the field again in this game. He also had a key tackle on special teams.
“It’s huge,” Hood said.
And then there was a muffed punt scooped up by long snapper Tristan Yeomans.
“When you have a long snapper that can cover, that has speed and can cover, it gives you an incredible advantage,” Hood said. “It’s an incredible schematic advantage for us because Yeomans can run.”
Special teams has become an incredible schematic advantage for Kentucky in general, the head coach said.
“Dean’s done an excellent job,” Stoops said. “He really has. Our guys are playing hard, and they’re in position. We’re not perfect, but I appreciate Dean and the work of all those guys because you’ve got to be very unselfish. These guys practice a lot, they meet extra and they do a lot of things. They’ve done a really nice job.”
Jackson gets his shot at center
Drake Jackson knew he was going to get his chance to play center in this game, but it didn’t make that first snap any less scary for the redshirt freshman.
“It was a little nerve-wracking of course because you don’t want to have a bad snap,” he said. “It’s not something I’ve done my whole life, so it doesn’t come that naturally. I’ve gotten better at it. It was a little nerve-wracking, but it was good to get it out of the way and get this game in.”
Not every snap was perfect and not every call was perfect, but Jackson said he feels better about where he is now than where he was a week ago. And he thinks he can only improve from here.
“I got a lot of reps today, so I can go watch the film and get better for next week,” said Jackson, who said not playing helped motivate him to work even harder the past few weeks to get in the game.
The offensive line was struggling with some players a little banged up, but Stoops thinks they have enough right now to get to the bye week (after Missouri) and heal up for the stretch run.
“We’ve got to really grind through this week, and then the guys can get a little time to heal up a little bit, both mentally and physically,” the coach said.
Eastern Michigan’s coach was frustrated that the Eagles couldn’t find a way to walk away with the upset.
“Obviously big-time disappointed right now,” Coach Chris Creighton said of EMU, which had a chance to win it on the Hail Mary at the end. “We didn’t give up, you know? There’s plenty of teams that break and we didn’t break.”
Creighton was especially complimentary of the Eagles’ defense, which he said “played phenomenal from start to finish,” including holding Kentucky to its fewest rushing yards (53) since it had 48 yards against Florida in 2013.
Quarterback Brogan Roback said he just wished the offense could have made the most of the chance the defense gave it.
“They just man up and they make plays and they give us the opportunity,” he said of the defense. “They gave us the opportunity there at the end to toss one up into the end zone and try to make a play out of it.”
Of that Hail Mary, Mike Edwards said he was ready for it. He didn’t want to fall victim to a last-second loss like so many other teas this season.
“I watch college football all the time and I see lots of crazy plays,” Edwards said. “Crazy plays: Hail Mary with the ball. So I tried not to let that happen. The whole team, but me personally I tried to not let that happen.”
Walker being evaluated
Kentucky wide receiver and punt returner Charles Walker was taken to the locker room in the first half after suffering a back injury on a play where EMU’s Juan Giraldo was ejected from the game for targeting. Walker did not return to the game in the second half.
“He had an injury to his back, to his rib really,” Stoops said of Walker. “There was a situation with a rib that wasn’t feeling real good. So he had to go get that checked out.”