UK Football

Kentucky’s ground game finds 1-2 punch in time for Louisville showdown

Kentucky running back Jojo Kemp (3) ran for 40 yards before being forced out of bounds by Charlotte defensive back Devin Pearson in the third quarter. Kemp rushed for a career-high 165 yards and three touchdowns.
Kentucky running back Jojo Kemp (3) ran for 40 yards before being forced out of bounds by Charlotte defensive back Devin Pearson in the third quarter. Kemp rushed for a career-high 165 yards and three touchdowns. palcala@herald-leader.com

Kentucky’s running backs coach had started to notice a strange pattern with Jojo Kemp.

Whenever the junior was told early in the week that he was definitely going to be one of the featured backs in the upcoming game, Kemp wouldn’t practice all that well.

So Chad Scott was hesitant to tell Kemp that coaches wanted him to become their short-yardage running back, a sort of one-two punch with starter Boom Williams against Charlotte.

“He’s never really done a good job when he knows he’s going to play, having the same attitude he does when he comes off the bench,” Scott said. “So I really challenged him.”

Kemp had played well in the Vanderbilt loss the week before, when it seemed like Mikel Horton was going to be the No. 2 back, and coaches wanted to see more of it.

But Scott also wanted Kemp to keep that edge in practice.

“Do I need to tell you on Saturday that you’re not going to play so you’ll come in with the attitude?” Scott even joked with Kemp.

No, Kemp promised. He was going to try to end that pattern the way Kentucky was trying to end its five-game losing streak.

Kemp changed his practice habits in subtle ways and then he changed the game against Charlotte, rushing for a career-high 165 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.

Giving Williams a solid rest during the game helped the sophomore, too. He had a career-best 140 yards and two touchdowns of his own.

And just in time for the biggest game of their young careers, Kentucky may have found its running back rotation in time for Saturday’s game against Louisville.

The Cats are going to need all the confidence they can muster against the Cardinals, who are 17th nationally in rushing defense, holding opponents to 121.2 yards a game and just eight scores.

Statistically, Louisville (6-5) is better than all but two Southeastern Conference rushing defenses (Alabama and Florida).

Scott started to notice how well the back and forth with Kemp and Williams was during the Vanderbilt game. “They kind of clicked going hand-in-hand,” Scott said.

There were times during the Charlotte game that Williams told Scott to go with Kemp, who had some big runs early, but Scott stuck with the pattern.

It was effective. The duo became the first UK running back combo to go for 100 yards apiece in the same game since Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb did it in 2010.

“I thought that rotation worked really well,” Scott said. “I liked the rotation, I like him going in there and Jojo coming in and getting going. I thought that rotation worked out really well.”

The rotation was agreeable for the Cats’ backs, too.

“I was telling (Kemp), it's big being able to have two guys to come in and be able to have that one-two punch, and we didn't lose anything,” said Williams, who leads the Cats with 818 yards and five touchdowns on 114 carries this season.

“It was really good just to see all of us running backs be productive and be able to help the offense and put us in the best position to score points.”

Against Charlotte, Kentucky (5-6) rushed for 415 yards, the fourth-largest output in school history. It was the most yards for a UK team since 1974 when the Cats had 441 versus Virginia Tech.

Williams, Kemp, Mikel Horton and true freshman Sihiem King combined for 11.7 yards per carry against outmanned Charlotte. King also scored his first career touchdown on a 62-yard run.

It was a positive for a Kentucky offense that had been searching for any positives during the team’s five-game losing streak.

“Felt really good handing off to those guys and watching them go,” quarterback Drew Barker said. “It’s awesome to see them break out like that and get them some confidence going into next week.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Saturday

Louisville at Kentucky

Noon (SEC Network)

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