The day began with disaster written all over it. Rain. A small home crowd. The knowledge that up the road, archrival Louisville was putting it all over No. 2 Florida State. And there at Commonwealth Stadium was New Mexico State, UK’s supposed guaranteed win, refusing to play its role.
Up and down the field the Aggies went. Ten possessions did the team coached by Doug Martin, the former UK backup quarterback (1981-84), have the football in the first half. Five times did New Mexico State score touchdowns. By intermission, the Aggies had 345 yards in total offense. The game was tied at 35.
From there, Kentucky finally did what it didn’t do the first two weeks: play better in the second half. Quarterback Stephen Johnson stepped in admirably for the injured Drew Barker. Johnson threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns. Boom Williams rushed for a career-high 188 yards. True freshman Bennie Snell rushed for 136 yards and four touchdowns. Kentucky won a shootout, 62-42.
“A step in the right direction,” head coach Mark Stoops called it.
And yet we have to question whether it was enough of a step — especially on one side of the football. The same unit that continued its poor play from the second half of the season-opening 44-35 loss to Southern Miss right on through last week’s 45-7 smackdown at the Swamp against Florida, again had its struggles.
New Mexico State entered averaging 326 yards a game in its first two games, a loss to UTEP and a one-point win over New Mexico. Martin’s club exited with 26 first downs, 223 yards rushing, 277 passing and 500 overall. The Aggies converted seven of 15 third-down opportunities. They scored 42 points.
“There are many things to get cleaned up,” Stoops said after his team improved to 1-2. “They will get cleaned up.”
It was Stoops, it seemed, who had taken it on himself to get those things cleaned. On his Monday radio call-in show, Stoops said he was going to take a more active role with the defense. By all reports, he was in more meetings, of both position players and coaches on the defensive side. By his Thursday briefing with the media, Stoops said he would be more involved with the defensive calls.
To be honest, in the first 30 minutes, it was hard to tell a difference. On the second play of New Mexico State’s first possession, quarterback Tyler Rogers found an open Johnathan Boone for a 35-yard touchdown pass.
“It wasn’t good,” Stoops said. “It was a combination of things. I had talked all week about having a higher football IQ, and we didn’t do that. Right from the first touchdown off of that split — I’m not taking anything away from them — but we flat blew it. That can’t happen.”
Third possession, after Kentucky lost the ball on a fumbled punt, Martin tricked the Cats with a wide receiver pass as Tyrian Taylor hit a wide-open Boone for a 31-yard touchdown and a 14-7 lead.
“We got impatient,” Stoops said. “We went with a zero blitz and they hit us with a trick play. We probably got impatient and made a bad call there. Should have made them grind it out and get it in the end zone.”
After that came a 69-yard TD drive, a 79-yard TD drive and a three-play, 75-yard TD drive right before halftime. At the half, Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot made some adjustments, and the visitors from the Sun Belt scored just seven points in the final 30 minutes.
“We got some things fixed at halftime, how they were running the ball on us inside,” Stoops said. “We’ve got a lot of things to get fixed. And we’ll get them fixed.”
In the first three games against the UK defense, Southern Miss ran 95 plays for 554 yards; Florida ran 83 plays for 564 yards; New Mexico State ran 79 plays for 500 yards. Luckily, UK’s offense stepped up Saturday, gaining 692 yards and scoring 62 points.
“We still have to get some things ironed out,” Stoops said.
The sooner, the better.
South Carolina at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC)