On Saturday night, Stephen Johnson could have taken a stroll across Louisville’s Big Four Bridge — and not been able to throw a football into the Ohio River.
The Kentucky Wildcats quarterback had picked a very bad time for his passing accuracy to desert him.
With a struggling Tennessee at Kroger Field, The Long Suffering UK Football Fans were yearning for a rare Wildcats football victory over the Big Orange.
Instead, the Wildcats kept losing fumbles and, when they tried to pass, Johnson kept throwing incomplete.
It seemed the Kentucky-Tennessee football non-rivalry was about to add yet another chapter of Blue frustration and futility.
Instead, Johnson added another layer to his improbable story as Kentucky football folk hero.
Boosted by fierce running from Benny Snell and a clutch, tip-toe-the-sideline catch by Tavin Richardson, Johnson directed Kentucky on a 10-play, 72-yard touchdown drive to give the Cats a 29-26 victory over Tennessee.
Before a chilled-to-the-bone crowd of 57,543 that included ex-UK coach Rich Brooks and members of his three bowl-winning teams (2006-08), Kentucky (6-2, 3-2 SEC) earned only its second win over Tennessee (3-5, 0-5) since 1984.
It came even though UK lost four fumbles, saw its starting quarterback complete six of 15 passes for 46 yards and was outgained 445-371 by what had been a listing Volunteers offense.
“That’s a thing of beauty,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said. “And it is because how many times were we on the wrong end of that (against Tennessee)? There’s been many times when (UK) has played some good football and came up on the wrong end.”
Kentucky sent its offense back on the field with 4:43 left in the game down only 26-21.
The Cats were still in the game because the UK defense did not allow UT to score even one touchdown after any of those four lost fumbles, forcing the Volunteers to settle for 2-of-4 on field-goal tries.
Taking over at its own 28, Kentucky was 72 yards from a potential game-winning touchdown.
Just as he did last year in directing the Cats to game-winning drives against Mississippi State and No. 11 Louisville, Johnson calmly marched UK down the field.
First, Snell (180 rushing yards on 27 carries with three TD runs) ripped off an 11-yard run, followed by a run for no gain.
On second-and-10 from the UK 39, Johnson dropped back to pass. At that point, he had misfired on six straight pass attempts.
Though it was his non-throwing side, the Kentucky quarterback’s left shoulder ached. He’d briefly been knocked from the game in the third period after being tackled at the end of a 34-yard run.
“As soon as I came down on it, I couldn’t move it,” Johnson said.
Now, with the game on the line, UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran felt he had to call a pass.
“You’ve got to throw it a little bit there,” Gran said. “You didn’t know how bad Stephen really felt. He looks at you, ‘Coach, I’m fine. I’m fine.’ So you’ve got to go with it.”
On a deep out, Johnson threw high. Kentucky sophomore wideout Tavin Richardson soared into the air, grabbed the ball, then dragged the toes of both his feet just inbounds.
“That was maybe the play of the game, especially on that drive,” Gran said. “Super-athletic.”
Richardson’s grab withstood replay review and gave the Cats a first down at the UT 45.
Next, Johnson ripped off a 12-yard run to the 33, then four Snell runs moved it to the Tennessee 11.
After Johnson overthrew tight end C.J. Conrad in the end zone, the quarterback (six carries for 84 yards) kept the ball around right end on a read option.
He broke clear of containment, reached the UT 3-yard line and then launched himself into the air when a Vols defender went low on a tackle attempt.
The Kentucky QB landed in the end zone.
When Johnson hit Snell with a two-point conversion pass, it was Kentucky 29, Tennessee 26 with only 33 seconds left.
Once UK withstood a Tennessee Hail Mary pass completion that was stopped at the Wildcats’ 3, Kentucky was bowl-eligible with a rare football squeezing of the Big Orange.
On a night when Johnson did not have his “best stuff” as a passer, he again found a way to win. The one-time Grambling State and junior-college QB is now 13-6 as UK’s primary quarterback.
“Amazing, really,” Stoops said of Johnson. “There’s not many players that probably would have (come) back and even played in that situation (after the shoulder injury). He’s absolutely tough as nails.”
Said UK outside linebacker Josh Allen: “Stephen is a dog. Stephen is the image of Kentucky (football). I love that man.”
This morning, UK fans far and wide surely feel that love.