After seven games, let’s review what we know about Mark Stoops’ 2018 Kentucky Wildcats.
Through seven games, the current UK defense is the best the Cats have had since Fran Curci’s 1977 team went 10-1.
Josh Allen, Kentucky’s current pass-rushing star, is the best defender to wear UK blue and white since Art Still in ‘77.
In junior star Benny Snell, the 2018 Wildcats have an old-school running back who gets stronger the longer games go and is at his best when victory hangs in the balance late.
All of that was on display on a blustery Saturday night at a Kroger Field, as No. 14 UK (6-1, 4-1 SEC) fought off Vanderbilt (3-5, 0-4 SEC) for a 14-7 victory.
“It says a lot when you are not playing your best on a tough night, (to) find a way to win,” Stoops said afterward.
In a tense 7-7 tie midway through the fourth quarter, Kentucky middle linebacker Kash Daniel and nose guard Quinton Bohanna combined to snuff a Vanderbilt fourth-and-1 play on the UK 16.
On the ensuing Kentucky drive, Snell carried the ball 10 times for 74 yards in what turned out to be an 80-yard scoring drive. The junior from Westerville, Ohio, went the final 7 yards for the game-winning TD.
Allen, Kentucky’s pass rusher deluxe, then extinguished Vanderbilt’s last gasp at victory by sacking Commodores quarterback Kyle Shurmur and stripping the ball.
When UK safety Mike Edwards recovered Shurmur’s fumble with 1:04 left in the game, it secured a victory that 1.) made Kentucky bowl-eligible for the third straight season and 2.) put the Wildcats into a three-way tie with Georgia and Florida for the SEC East lead.
Yet for Kentucky, there remains a nagging concern. Going back to UK’s 20-14 overtime loss at Texas A&M two weeks ago, the Wildcats have now played roughly seven straight quarters with all but no passing attack.
Amidst a swirling wind on a chilly night, UK starting quarterback Terry Wilson finished Saturday 3-of-9 passing for 18 yards with one touchdown.
With Kentucky close enough to taste to the special season that The Long-Suffering UK Football Fans have craved for decades, it’s hard not to fear that UK’s lack of production through the air is going to eventually sabotage the Wildcats.
“We need to be much better. We need to get better throwing the football,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said.
Wilson, the junior-college transfer, acknowledged that it is frustrating for a quarterback not to produce in the passing game.
“That’s what a quarterback does, throw the ball,” the redshirt sophomore QB said. “But it is what it is. We just have to keep working on it and keep getting better.”
This will sound odd to say about a QB who has led Kentucky to six wins in his first seven career starts, but I feel a little sorry for Wilson.
The last two Kentucky quarterbacks who won the UK starting job as sophomores and still held it at the end of their senior seasons — Andre Woodson and Mike Hartline — struggled as first-year starters.
In his first seven games as the UK starting QB, Woodson completed a so-so 58.1 percent of his passes for 865 yards with almost as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns (five).
Over Hartline’s first seven starts in 2008, he completed 55 percent of his throws for 1,265 yards with eight TDs vs. six picks.
Even with Saturday night’s struggles, Wilson is still completing 63.9 percent of his throws for 721 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions.
But where Woodson (a rebuilding program) and Hartline (a retooling situation) claimed the UK job when they had a chance to grow with their teams, Wilson is the first-year quarterback of a senior-laden team with urgency to win big now.
“We’ve got to keep putting (Wilson) in great positions,” Gran said. “But it’s not all on Terry.”
Maybe Kentucky’s defense and Snell are so good that the Cats can make a bid for the SEC East crown and get to double-digit wins without needing much of a passing attack.
It’s also possible that UK will need to throw next week to keep pace with high-scoring Missouri. Or that the Cats will have to make plays through the air to beat Georgia on Nov. 3 and potentially take control of the SEC East race.
“Yes, for sure,” Stoops said when asked if UK will ultimately need more from its passing game.
If you are looking for a reason to hope, consider: Two seasons ago, when junior-college transfer Stephen Johnson assumed the Kentucky starting QB job after Drew Barker was injured, he threw for 273 yards in his first three SEC starts.
Over his final four SEC games in 2016, Johnson threw for 795 yards.
Maybe Wilson can make a similar progression in passing production in the second half of his first year as Kentucky starter.
For UK to complete the special year in 2018, it feels like he better do so.
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory