Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 40-34 win over Missouri:
1. The Dramati-Cats are 5-1
No matter how it arrived at 5-1, Kentucky is 5-1. In the last 30 years, that record is a rarity. The Cats were 5-1 in 2014, Mark Stoops’ second season as head coach. They were 5-1 in 2007 before upsetting No. 1 LSU 43-37 in overtime to go 6-1. After that, you have to flip back to Jerry Claiborne’s 1984 team, which was 5-1 on the way to winning the Hall of Fame Bowl.
True, with this team, it hasn’t always been pretty and it hasn’t been easy. UK beat Southern Miss by a touchdown, Eastern Kentucky by 11, South Carolina by 10, Eastern Michigan by four, Missouri by six. That’s five victories by a combined 38 points. So much for breathing room.
But look at it this way: They are two points from being 6-0. That 28-27 loss to Florida, the game in which the Cats led 27-13, is the only thing keeping Stoops’ club from being a perfect 6-0 heading into its bye week.
“We’re overjoyed (to be 5-1),” said quarterback Stephen Johnson.
The last three games — the loss to Florida, then win over Eastern Michigan, Saturday night’s victory — all came down to the final play. That’s nerve-wracking for sure. And UK won two of the three.
The outcomes aren’t flukes, necessarily. There’s too much evidence of close victories to chalk it up to luck. Somehow, someway, so far, this team has found ways to win. It has created turnovers. It has made plays. It has survived. Saturday night, it had to punch back after taking multiple Missouri punches.
“I have been around teams like that before,” said secondary coach Steve Clinkscale. “It’s funny you mention that, because I talked about that with my guys before the game. You have to find ways to win.”
Through six games, Kentucky has found ways to win five. Six more games to go.
2. Missouri loved the long ball; Kentucky, not so much
The Tigers completed four passes of 48 yards or more. Three went for touchdowns. There was a 50-yard TD pass from quarterback Drew Lock to wide out J’Mon Moore. There was a 58-yard TD throw from Lock to wide out Emanuel Hall. There was a 75-yard TD pass from Lock to wide out Johnathon Johnson.
Through the first five games, UK had given up just two passes for 50 yards or more. South Carolina’s Jake Bentley hit Deebo Samuel with a 68-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage in the season’s third game. Florida wide receiver Kadraius Toney threw a 50-yard touchdown pass off a trick play to Kyrie Cleveland in the season’s fourth game.
UK entered the game 112th nationally in passing yards allowed per game and 78th in pass efficiency defense. Losing starting cornerback Chris Westry to injury in the first half didn’t help either.
“They caught us in Two Tampa (coverage) a couple of times,” said UK defensive coordinator Matt House. “They split us once with the Mike (linebacker). One time we took a bad angle with the safety. Another time they beat us Single High (coverage). I’ve got to do a better job of putting them in better situations. But I’m proud of our kids because we fought to the end.”
Indeed, after kicking a chip shot field goal for a 40-34 lead, Kentucky couldn’t afford to give up the long ball on Missouri’s final possession. The Tigers moved from their own 25 to the UK 27 with three seconds left. But Lock’s final heave fell incomplete short of the end zone as time ran out.
“We made the plays when we had to,” said cornerback Derrick Baity.
3. Kentucky’s offense comes alive
Given that the Kentucky offense gained just 228 yards in last week’s win over Eastern Michigan, the thought of the Cats being dragged into a shootout with an SEC team, even a 1-3 SEC team, could not have been especially comforting. Yet Eddie Gran’s group found a way to respond. Again and again.
When Missouri pulled within 20-17 early in the third quarter, Kentucky drove 66 yards in nine plays with Benny Snell scoring from six yards out for a 27-17 advantage.
When Missouri tied the game 27-27 with 24 seconds left in the third quarter, Stephen Johnson hit wide out Garrett “Juice” Johnson, who turned on the afterburners for a 64-yard touchdown to make the score 34-27 Cats with 14:09 remaining.
When Missouri knotted it up at 34-34, Kentucky picked up a couple of first downs that paved the way for a 53-yard Austin MacGinnis field goal and a 37-34 lead.
After UK’s Lonnie Johnson blocked a Missouri field goal attempt that would have tied matters all over again, Johnson moved the home team to the two-yard line where on fourth-and-goal, MacGinnis added a chip shot 20-yard field goal for a six-point lead.
It was the right call. Had UK been stopped on fourth-and-goal, Missouri would have needed just a field goal to send the game into overtime. And the Tigers moved inside the Kentucky 30, but had to go for the touchdown. And failed.
“It was tempting,” said Stoops of possibly going for the touchdown, “but not at two (yards to go). If it was fourth-and-one you might try to make them drive the length of the field if you don’t make it. I think six was big and you had to make them score a touchdown.”
On the night, Kentucky was outgained 568-486. On the one hand, Missouri’s 568 yards was the most the UK defense has given up this season. On the other hand, the Cats’ 486 yards was also a season-high. Kentucky needed every one of those yards. And got them.
Kentucky football 2017