How Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky match up - with a game prediction:
Kentucky’s Stephen Johnson was efficient (seven of 11 throws for 135 yards and a touchdown plus a rushing TD) in half one at Southern Mississippi. He was less effective (4-for-9 passing for 41 yards) after halftime. He struggled to complete third-down passes (2-of-7). Nevertheless, Kentucky is now 8-4 in games in which Johnson has taken the majority of snaps at QB. Eastern Kentucky’s Tim Boyle had a splendid debut for Coach Mark Elder. The 6-4, 233-pound redshirt senior, who sat out last year after transferring from Connecticut, threw for 320 yards and two TDs in EKU’s 31-17 loss at Western Kentucky. Boyle is the first Eastern QB ever to throw for 300-plus yards in a debut.
Kentucky star Benny Snell ran for 67 yards on 20 carries and lost a fumble inside the Southern Mississippi 5-yard line. Going back to 2016, it was the third straight game in which Snell has been held below 70 yards rushing. Backup Sihiem King (12 yards on eight carries) also had a hard time getting going for UK. Eastern Kentucky’s running game was stoned at Western — net 25 yards on 22 carries. Louisville transfer L.J. Scott (25 yards, eight carries) and Arizona State transfer Justin Lewis (21 yards, five carries) will try to get untracked vs. UK. Ethan Thomas, who ran for 84 yards against UK in the Colonels’ 34-27 overtime loss in 2015, did not play last week.
Kentucky’s only proven wide receiver, senior Garrett Johnson (two catches, 22 yards) was the sole UK wideout with more than one catch at Southern Mississippi. True freshmen Isaiah Epps and Clevan Thomas registered their first career catches last week. Eastern Kentucky wideouts Ryan Markush and Neiko Creamer were huge at WKU. Markush, a 6-2, 189-pound senior, had seven catches for a career-best 107 yards and two TDs. Creamer, a 6-3, 224-pound junior who transferred from Tennessee, had six catches for 79 yards. Former UK walk-on Cameron Fogle caught 22 passes for EKU last season.
Advantage: Eastern Kentucky
Kentucky’s C.J. Conrad was the Wildcats’ offensive star of week one. The 6-foot-5, 242-pound junior from LaGrange, Ohio, caught three passes for 97 yards and a touchdown at Southern Mississippi. Eastern Kentucky junior Clayton Schmerber, also an Ohio product (Centerville), caught two passes (21 yards) at WKU.
In its first game without veterans Jon Toth (graduated), Cole Mosier (injured) and Ramsey Meyers (gave up final season of eligibility), Kentucky’s offensive line struggled at Southern Miss. On the plus side, UK coaches say sophomore left tackle Landon Young, the former Lafayette star, graded out well. Eastern Kentucky has two starters back from last season in right guard Chance Edwards and Cameron Kowalewski, who has moved from right to left tackle. While the Colonels struggled to run the ball at Western, they surrendered only one QB sack.
Kentucky’s biggest question entering the season, the interior defensive front performed robustly at Southern Miss. Tackle Adrian Middleton, the South Warren product, had five tackles. Nose guard Matt Elam, a John Hardin graduate, had four stops, as did 6-9, 305-pound end Calvin Taylor. Eastern Kentucky unleashed an effective outside pass rush on WKU, with ends Luder Jean Louis (1.5 sacks), Taquan Evans (1.5) and Aaron Patrick (one) combining for four quarterback sacks.
Kentucky OLBs Denzil Ware and Josh Allen were a two-man wrecking crew at Southern Miss. A 6-5, 230-pound junior, Allen had five tackles, three tackles for loss, a quarterback sack, a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble that set up a UK touchdown. A 6-2, 235-pound junior, Ware had three tackles, 1.5 TFL, a sack, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries — one of which he returned for a TD. Eastern Kentucky’s Jeffrey Canady, the former Knox Central star, and Damon Lowe, a Trinity High School product, each had six tackles at WKU.
Finally healthy after battling multiple leg injuries, Kentucky safety Darius West turned in a stout performance (six tackles, 1 TFL, a forced fumble that became a UK TD) at Southern Mississippi. Conversely, UK’s cornerbacks struggled as USM threw for 309 yards. EKU held prolific WKU QB Mike White to 265 yards passing. Safety Eric Reed had a team-high six tackles. CB Buck Solomon had five stops with one TFL. Ex-UK DB Jared Tucker, who backs up Reed, had one tackle vs. Western.
Kentucky’s special teams — now coached by former EKU head man Dean Hood — were stellar in week one. New punter Matt Panton, an Australian who is a graduate transfer from Columbia University, averaged 42 yards on nine punts. He pinned Southern Miss inside its 20 five times. Sihiem King set up a UK TD with a 46-yard kickoff return. Place-kicker Austin MacGinnis cashed a 41-yard field goal. EKU punter Keith Wrzuszczak (pronounced ROO-sack), also an Australian, averaged 40.5 yards on four kicks at WKU. Place-kicker Lucas Williams, a Russell County product, was 10-of-16 on field goals in 2016 and 1-of-1 last week (30 yards). Louisville transfer L.J. Scott averaged 23.5 yards on two kickoff returns.