Bowl Hopes Start from the Ground Up

UK quarterback Stephen Johnson rushed for 55 yards and passed for 49 yards.

UK quarterback Stephen Johnson rushed for 55 yards and passed for 49 yards.

Yes, it was another in a string of must-wins. But at least it was a win.

And so the Wildcats go into their bye week at 3-3. Before the season began, the best hope at this juncture was a 4-2 record. Likely wins over New Mexico State, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Almost inevitable losses to Florida and Alabama.

The one unexpected stain on the schedule has been Southern Mississippi. But it might be enough to cost Kentucky a bowl invitation.

So the week off gives coach Mark Stoops and his staff time to review and tweak, and the players time to rest and heal. As Stoops told a TV interviewer after the game, “We’re pretty beat up right now.”

The Vanderbilt win was not particularly decisive but, interestingly, the game was won largely by the defense. That defense had been expected to be the weak link on a team that had presumably progressed beyond its two straight 5-7 seasons.

The offense had an experienced offensive line; a strong-armed quarterback just bursting to grab the reins; a corps of big, fast, outstanding receivers; and enough of a running game to keep defenses from focusing on the pass.

The defense had a strong set of cornerbacks and returning safety starters, but a front seven that had lost almost all of its impact players.

Denzil Ware lifts up Chris Westery after a defensive stop. UK is now 2-2 in the SEC and 3-3 overall.

Denzil Ware lifts up Chris Westery after a defensive stop. UK is now 2-2 in the SEC and 3-3 overall.

So, six weeks into the season, where are we? The QB had a strong arm but apparently a weak back.

The receivers have had some good moments. But two of the most promising, Dorian Baker and Blake Bone, have been pretty much invisible – either injured or ignored. And tight end C.J. Conrad just continues to seem underused.

The offensive line has been shaky on pass defense but much better on the run. And the running game has been solid.

Boom Williams never got back into the game after fumbling early in the third quarter, a fumble picked up and returned for a Vandy touchdown. I thought he lost his balance early in the run and was just stumbling forward, his arms flailing, the ball never in control.

Was he being punished? Boom seems like a fragile psyche. Eddie Gran seems like he has little patience for fragile. I hope they straighten it out.

Stephen Johnson has added a dimension to the ground game since being forced into the QB role.

And nobody back in August was talking about Benny Snell.

Nor was anybody talking about Jordan Jones.

While the pass defense has been disappointing, the front seven has been unexpectedly solid. And Jones has been its X-factor, a sure tackler, rabid quarterback-chaser and athletic sideline-to-sideline pursuer.

Denzil Ware, Josh Allen and Naquez Pringle are also making their presence felt.

Much of this improvement has come since Stoops very publicly took over the defensive play-calling. That only reinforces what we already knew: He can be an outstanding defensive coordinator.

But there’s work to be done once the Cats get back into action on October 22. Mississippi State, Missouri and Georgia – the next three games, in order – have all had slow starts.

So let’s say Kentucky beats Missouri. That puts them at 4-5, closing out the season against Tennessee, Austin Peay and Louisville. They need two of those games. Ouch!

I believe that makes the Mississippi State game on October 22 a critical one. It’s the first one back, it’s at home, and the Wildcats – the UK Wildcats – will have had a couple of weeks to prepare. While the Wildcats – the MSU Wildcats – will have had to go to Provo, Utah, and Brigham Young, which just beat Michigan State.

In those two weeks, Stoops and Gran will have to make some decisions: One, can Drew Barker make his way back into the lineup? Or two, if he can’t, what will the Cats’ offense look like?

Johnson’s passing game has fallen apart since a strong performance against New Mexico State. He was all over the place Saturday and, by the second half, he seemed to be aiming the ball, his confidence shot.

But a team that can run the ball can gobble up yardage and run the clock to its benefit. I have no idea how the wildcat formation works, why it succeeds and why it’s not completely predictable. But it does, and Jojo Kemp has long been its most productive operator.

Maybe Kentucky can keep the ball on the ground, score enough to take the lead, and count on its defense to save the day.

Now who thought we’d ever be thinking that this year? VT

Photos by Victoria Graff