Unselfishness leads to UK football's strong special teams play
No matter how much Kentucky said it had shaken the difficult loss to Florida the week before, there still were some emotional remnants even a week later.
That was evident in Kentucky’s 24-20 victory over Eastern Michigan on Saturday.
“The fact of the matter is that our players were crushed by that loss,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said of the Florida defeat that didn’t end the 30-plus years losing streak to the Gators. “It was a tough one to shake. But you have to. Win or lose, you have to get back to work on Monday and get prepared for the next opponent.
“Again, we’d be lying if we didn’t say sometimes that was easier said than done, right? I’m glad we got the victory.”
That victory against Eastern Michigan was a struggle, though, Stoops admitted. There were issues running the ball, being physical in the run game and finding a rhythm offensively.
Those are things Stoops says Kentucky will get cleaned up going forward as it gets deeper into Southeastern Conference play, starting with Missouri on Saturday at Kroger Field.
The coach called it an easy narrative to say that UK plays up to its higher regarded opponents and that it maybe doesn’t get up for games against foes who aren’t household names.
Sometimes a team just doesn’t play well, he said.
“We’re not always going to play our best football no matter who it is,” Stoops continued. “You have to find ways to win.”
When he walked into the postgame news conference after the Eastern Michigan win, which moved UK to 4-1 on the season with one game left before a bye week, Stoops acknowledged that he wasn’t overwhelmed by the Cats’ performance, either.
“I felt the same way, the same way … a lot of fans (felt) after the game — you feel frustrated because offense is what everybody looks at,” he said of Kentucky’s offense, which amassed a season-low 228 yards, including a season-worst 53 yards on 27 carries.
Kentucky found ways to defeat Eastern Michigan even though it seemed to lack some of the edge it had the week before against Florida.
“We did some very good things defensively and in special teams,” Stoops said.
On special teams those plays included a blocked punt that set up a go-ahead touchdown, a career-best 71-yard punt for Matt Panton as well as several balls downed deep in Eastern Michigan territory.
On defense, the Cats held the Eagles to 13 rushing yards, the fewest for a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since Vanderbilt had minus-29 in 1996.
Kentucky is now holding opponents to 74 yards per game on the ground, good enough for third nationally.
“I thought, again after watching the film, that we played very good on defense and very good on special teams,” he said. “Offensively, we’ll get it fixed.”
Stoops doesn’t usually go down a list of injuries at the start of a news conference like some previous coaches at Kentucky.
This week that might be because naming them all would take most of the 30 minutes he spends with the media on Monday mornings.
The head coach did confirm that starting quarterback Stephen Johnson will get limited reps on Monday at practice, but Stoops didn’t say why.
“He’s been banged up,” Stoops said of Johnson, who was sacked five times on Saturday against Eastern Michigan. “We have to — he’s got to limit some reps today — we expect Stephen being Stephen, he’ll be back out there tomorrow full go.”
Wide receiver Charles Walker, who exited the game with a rib injury on Saturday, is still listed on the new UK depth chart at the starting slot wide receiver spot. Stoops also called Walker “banged up” and “sore today.”
Several offensive linemen also fall under the “banged up” category, but there were no regular players absent from Monday’s depth chart.
C.J. Conrad, who was on that undisclosed “banged up” list a week ago, played roughly 30 snaps on Saturday.
Missouri (1-3, 0-2) is coming off a bye week when the Tigers come to Kroger Field on Saturday. Could the bye week be a factor? “It can’t be,” Stoops said.
▪ Linebacker Jordan Jones, who has missed the past two games with an undisclosed shoulder injury, also is a no-go this week against Missouri, Stoops said, without elaborating on a timeline.
News and notes
Freshman Josh Paschal, whose blocked punt helped set up Kentucky’s go-ahead score over Eastern Michigan, was named the SEC’s special teams player of the week on Monday.
It’s the second time this season a UK player has garnered that honor. Kicker Austin MacGinnis earned it after the win at South Carolina.
Paschal’s block went for an 18-yard loss and helped set up Benny Snell’s 12-yard scoring run on the next play with less than 12 minutes to go on Saturday.
“We hadn’t had one of those in a long time, and it’s a big-time, impact play there,” Stoops said. “Those are game changers.”
▪ Two other true freshmen now seem less likely to see the the field this season in offensive tackle Naasir Watkins and running back Bryant Koback.
Watkins was taken off the depth chart at left tackle, where he was penciled in behind Landon Young, and replaced with senior Kyle Meadows at that spot.
“I’m not making any decision right now, but we did consider it again last week, playing him, and we have a lot of reps invested in some of these other guys,” Stoops said of the depth chart update. “We’ll see what happens.”
Koback, who missed spring practice while coming back from a broken leg his senior season of high school, seems likely headed for a redshirt as well.
“The plays haven’t presented,” Stoops said of UK, which is averaging 62.8 plays per game offensively. “It’s not worth (playing Koback) at this point, because we do feel like we have some good backs and we’re staying relatively healthy there.”
Missouri at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC)