John Clay

If not for turnovers, Kentucky football might be off to a terrible start

Kentucky is 2-0.

That’s all that matters, of course. Bottom line. Wins and losses. You are what your record says you are, though in this case more than a few would make a forceful argument that after two games of the 2017 football season, the Cats have not exactly looked like a 2-0 team.

Saturday, for example, Kentucky trailed neighbor and FCS member Eastern Kentucky 7-3 in the first quarter, 13-3 in the second, 13-10 at the half and 16-10 with 4:08 left in the third quarter before rallying for a 27-16 victory at Kroger Field.

That followed an opening-week 24-17 win at Southern Miss in which Mark Stoops’ team was outgained, often outplayed and left its fan base out of sorts with the overall performance.

“I give our team credit for doing what we have to do to win the game,” Stoops said Saturday. “We’re 2-0 and that feels very good.”

Why is Kentucky 2-0 when it could easily be 0-2?

One big reason and maybe the only reason: Turnovers.

Despite winning seven games and playing in the TaxSlayer Bowl last season, Kentucky ranked 107th out of 128 FBS teams in turnover margin at minus-0.54 per game. The Cats turned it over 28 times while turning the opponents over just 21 times. That’s not good.

After two games this year, Stoops’ troops are a plus-4 in turnover margin, plus-2.0 per game. That is good. At Southern Miss, UK turned it over once — Benny Snell’s early fumble inside the Golden Eagles’ 5-yard line — while recovering three USM fumbles, one it returned for a TD. Saturday, UK forced two EKU turnovers. The Cats recovered a Colonels fumble and intercepted a Colonels pass.

The fumble recovery was big. Already up a field goal, Eastern’s L.J. Scott, the transfer from Louisville, returned the second-half kickoff 53 yards. Four plays later, Eastern was second-and-goal at the UK 4-yard line when freshman running back Alonzo Booth fumbled — forced by UK linebacker Jordan Jones — at the 3 and Kentucky’s Derrick Baity recovered.

Then, with UK up 24-16 with 4:20 left, Eastern took over on its own 17 with probably its last, best chance. A touchdown and two-point conversion would tie the game. First play of the drive, however, UK safety Mike Edwards stepped in front of the EKU receiver and picked off Tim Boyle’s pass.

“We’d been scouting the offense all week,” Edwards said. “I kind of knew and I just slipped (the route) and got the interception.”

Meanwhile, on offense, the Cats played clean. No fumbles. No interceptions. The team that averaged more than two giveaways a game last season has turned it over just once its first two games.

“If we had turned the football over today,” said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, “it would have been bad news.”

“We made a strong emphasis on that,” said Stoops of the now plus-4 in turnover margin. “That’s good to see. It’s paid off two games in a row.”

Give Eastern Kentucky credit. In Mark Elder’s second season, after going 3-8 last year, the Colonels are an improved football team. They outscored Western Kentucky 17-14 in the second half last week in a 31-17 loss to the Hilltoppers. Saturday, from the 6:22 mark of the first quarter until 2:57 left in the third, they led Power Five and Southeastern Conference member Kentucky.

“We knew all week it would be a tough game,” Stoops said. “I know a lot of people have their own opinions, but we watched them last week versus Western and I said it in my press conference on Monday and I believe players knew that this was a good football team.”

Next week, however, Kentucky plays a better football team. An SEC football team in South Carolina. On the road. It’s a key matchup between two teams who feel they can make some noise in the East Division this season.

“The nice thing is that we know, and our players know, there’s a lot of things we need to improve on,” Stoops said Saturday. “We were in this position last year and the record wasn’t the same.”

Oh yeah, last year.

What was the 2016 record after two games?

Last year, Kentucky started 0-2.

Next game

Kentucky at South Carolina

7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)

Kentucky football 2-0 starts last decade

  • 2015 - Started 2-0 and finished 5-7
  • 2014 - Started 2-0 and finished 5-7
  • 2011 - Started 2-0 and finished 5-7
  • 2010 - Started 2-0 and finished 6-7 with loss in the BBVA Compass Bowl
  • 2009 - Started 2-0 and finished 7-6 with loss in the Music City Bowl
  • 2008 - Started 2-0 and finished 7-6 with win in the Liberty Bowl
  • 2007 - Started 2-0 and finished 8-5 with win in the Music City Bowl
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