OK, so the Kentucky offense ran just 55 plays (compared to 78 for Southern Miss) and gained just 254 yards (compared to 364 for Southern Miss) and missed blocks and receivers and holes and opportunities.
“It was very frustrating,” said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran afterward, standing on the artificial turf just outside the end zone at M.M. Roberts Stadium as dusk visited Mississippi on Saturday night. “It wasn’t good.”
And yet here’s the thing, the scoreboard on the other side of the stadium looked very good. It read: Kentucky 24, Southern Miss 17.
“We’ll take it,” Gran said.
And here’s the even better thing: The offense will get better.
“I hope that saying of you get better from the first game to the second game, that we’ll see that improvement next week,” Gran said.
Kentucky is 1-0 thanks to its defense. Everyone agreed on that. Especially Gran. Especially his players.
“Our defense carried us,” said tight end C.J. Conrad, though he was probably his unit’s best player, catching three passes for 97 yards and a touchdown, including a 59-yard grab-and-go in the first quarter and a 23-yard pop pass from Stephen Johnson for a score in the second quarter.
And everyone agreed that, by and large, the UK offense was a disappointment, that Johnson back at quarterback and 1,000-yard rusher Benny Snell back as a running back and veterans on the line and at receiver didn’t automatically translate into fireworks or even points.
Kentucky’s three touchdown drives were as follows: A three-play, 14-yard drive in which the Cats capitalized off a Southern Miss fumble; a three-play, 37-yard drive in which a 47-yard kickoff return by Sihiem King and a personal foul penalty against the Golden Eagles gave the Cats great field position; and a 21-yard fumble return for a score by defensive end Denzil Ware.
UK’s running game, which basically carried the Cats to the TaxSlayer Bowl last season, never got going. Snell finished with 67 yards on 20 carries. His longest gain was 10 yards. King picked up 12 yards on eight carries. Including sacks, Johnson gained 10 yards on just five attempts.
“When Bunchy got dinged up a little bit and we started moving guys around,” said Gran, “I just never felt continuity.”
Bunchy was Bunchy Stallings, the McComb, Miss., native making his first start at center, who was in and out of the lineup all day because of injury. With Stallings on the sideline, guard Nick Haynes switched to center. And someone else switched to guard. And someone else had to switch. And you get the idea.
The UK staff knew there would be some of that on Saturday. After all, the Cats lost starting left tackle Cole Mosier to a torn ACL midway through training camp. And the depth chart released last Monday featured a slew of “or” situations between first-and second-teamers up and down the line.
“Hopefully we’ll get that all sorted out after two or three games,” offensive line coach John Schlarman said during the week.
It did not help Saturday that the strength of Southern Miss’s defense was expected to be its front four. To make matters more complicated, head coach Jay Hopson, a defensive guy, loves a D-line that stunts and moves and makes things tough on an offensive line that is not used to playing together.
“Give those guys credit,” said Conrad. “They were moving around all day. They were good.”
Meanwhile, Kentucky’s offense wasn’t good but it can still get to good, and soon. Johnson didn’t hit on the deep balls he so often dropped on opponents last year. Snell was not the bulldozer he was a year ago, especially out of the wildcat formation, though not from lack of trying.
“I probably got a little bit too stubborn,” Gran admitted.
And there weren’t many holes.
“I didn’t think our backs did a very good job of being patient,” he said. “That’s not on the O-line.”
So we go back to this: 1-0.
“The great thing about it is we won the game,” Gran said. “We have an opportunity to come back next week and get some of those things fixed.”
The guess here is Gran will get it fixed.
Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky
Noon Saturday (SEC)