How Kentucky (3-1, 1-1 SEC) and Eastern Michigan (2-1, 0-1 MAC) match up — with a game prediction:
Stephen Johnson was Kentucky’s best offensive player against Florida, completing 17 of 25 passes with three touchdowns and no interceptions against the ball-hawking Gators. Versus Florida, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound senior was 6-for-9 passing on first down, 7-for-9 on second down but only 3-for-6 on third downs (he was 1-for-1 on fourth down). Eastern Michigan’s Brogan Roback has been the key figure in helping Coach Chris Creighton turn around the Eagles’ program. The 6-3, 218-pound senior threw for 260 yards and a TD in EMU’s 16-13 victory over Big Ten foe Rutgers two weeks ago. Last week, in a double-overtime loss to Ohio, Roback threw for 271 yards and a TD.
Kentucky junior Sihiem King was one of the positives out of UK’s come-from-ahead 28-27 loss to Florida last week. The 5-9, 172-pound product of Colquitt, Ga., looked fast, running for 64 yards on 5 carries and catching a pass for 24 more yards. King might have emerged as the fleet complement UK needs to its primary runner, power back Benny Snell (331 yards, 3 TDs in 2017). Eastern Michigan did not run the ball well in the loss to Ohio, finishing with 45 yards on 27 attempts. The Eagles have four backs who have started games. The most accomplished is junior Shaq Vann, who missed most of last season with an injury but ran for 586 yards on 100 carries in 2015.
A former walk-on, Kentucky’s Charles Walker tied Garrett Johnson (team-best 12 catches on the season) for the team lead in receptions (four) against Florida. The St. Xavier product had a 14-yard reception on UK’s final drive on fourth-and-10 that gave UK a chance at a game-winning field goal attempt. Eastern Michigan starts three seniors at wideout, Sergio Bailey (17 catches, 267 yards), Antoine Porter (14, 177) and Johnnie Niupalau (8, 115). A year ago, Bailey had 60 catches for for 868 yards and three TDs.
Kentucky junior C.J. Conrad caught two passes for 34 yards and a TD last week and the 6-5, 245-pound product of LaGrange, Ohio, leads UK in touchdown catches (three) and is tied for second in receptions (nine). Mostly a special teams player a season ago, Eastern Michigan’s Bryce Kemp, a 6-5, 235-pound sophomore, has caught three passes this season.
With errant “pistol formation” snaps having emerged as a recurring problem for Kentucky, UK offensive line coach John Schlarman said this week that redshirt freshmen Luke Fortner and Drake Jackson, the former Woodford County star, were getting looks at center in practice. Bunchy Stallings and Nick Haynes, both of whom played guard in 2016, have handled the center position so far this season for Kentucky. Eastern Michigan right guard Jimmy Leatiota, a redshirt junior, is one of two returning starters on the EMU offensive front. The other, redshirt junior left tackle Ka’John Armstrong, is number two on the depth chart behind classmate Chris Bukoski.
After a summer that produced some harsh criticism of Kentucky nose guard Matt Elam, the senior from John Hardin High School has drawn mostly positive reviews for his play so far through four games. Elam (two tackles) was the only UK interior lineman credited with more than one tackle against Florida. Eastern Michigan redshirt junior “rush end” Jeremiah Harris (nine TFL, four QB sacks in 2016) was preseason 1st Team All-MAC according to Phil Steele’s preview. However, it was his backup, Pittsburgh transfer Luke Maclean, who had two sacks, 2.5 TFL and three QB hurries against Ohio University.
Kentucky’s “Blitz Brothers,” OLBs Josh Allen (eight tackles, one sack) and Denzil Ware (seven tackles, one TFL) were again active against Florida. Senior MLB Courtney Love is having a strong year and is tied for 15th in the SEC with 30 tackles. Eastern Michigan senior WLB Jason Beck is the most experienced player on the EMU roster with 38 career starts. After moving from safety to linebacker in 2017, the Indianapolis product has 15 tackles and an interception.
Kentucky junior safeties Mike Edwards (11 tackles) and Darius West (eight tackles, one interception) put up productive numbers against Florida. Cornerback Derrick Baity suffered a head injury against the Gators and sat out the second half but UK Coach Mark Stoops said Thursday that Baity is cleared to play this week. Eastern Michigan safety Brody Hoying has been one of the most disruptive players in the country in 2017. The 5-11, 205-pound sophomore from Coldwater, Ohio, intercepted a pass in EMU’s two opening games, then forced two fumbles against Ohio U. last week, recovering one. He leads the Eagles in tackles (21) and pass breakups (two), too.
Kentucky punt returner Charles Walker set up a TD against Florida last week with a 52-yard jaunt. Place-kicker Austin MacGinnis went 2-for-4 on field goals, missing from 48 and 57 yards. Punter Matt Panton averaged 40.3 on five kicks, pinning Florida inside its 20 twice. Eastern Michigan place-kicker Paulie Fricano has made six of seven field goal tries with a long of 41. Last year, he hit 19 of 24 with a long of 46. Punter Ivan Oraha is averaging 35.7 yards on 12 kicks, but EMU’s most effective punting has come from quarterback Brogan Roback. He is averaging 44.9 yards on seven pooch kicks.
Kentucky 42, Eastern Michigan 19