I thought I’d be writing this week about how wrong it would be to discount the Wildcats’ first win of the season just because it came against an outclassed non-conference opponent.
What I didn’t think I’d be writing about was Stephen Johnson. And Benny Snell Jr. And C.J. Conrad. And Landon Young. And Charles Walker.
I didn’t think Saturday would be about our two local football teams scoring 125 points – what??? – and half of those coming from the Kentucky offense.
It wasn’t pretty. The newly minted defense, now run by Mark Stoops, gave up 42 points and 500 yards, not what you were expecting from the guy who once ran the Florida State defense. (Oh, that defense – okay, not fair to hold Saturday’s Seminoles game against him.)
But they really buckled down in the second half. They finally got off the field on third down. They gave up just one touchdown. They bothered the Aggies’ quarterback, Tyler Rogers.
No, this game was about the offense. Especially Johnson, Snell and the offensive line. When Drew Barker was wheeled out of the stadium, I wasn’t particularly optimistic about his backup. Not after the Florida game.
But Johnson was poised and mobile and, after a shaky start, showed a strong arm.
We knew he could run. Can’t say the same thing for Snell, although Tom Leach and Freddie Maggard were saying on the radio that he’d looked great in the Blue-White scrimmage. Maybe, but nobody was talking about Snell until Saturday. And likely still wouldn’t be talking about him today if Jojo Kemp hadn’t been held out of the New Mexico State game.
A few years ago, the New York Giants had a running back corps they called earth, wind and fire. Kentucky doesn’t have the earth yet, but Snell and Boom Williams showed some wind and fire: Boom doing his survey of the line play before choosing his opening and blowing through it; Snell surveying nothing but the open field in front of him, taking the ball and firing forward. And if it meant carrying a few people on his back for a few extra yards, well, hang on for the ride.
Conrad did what good tight ends are supposed to do. Whether he was the first or fourth option, he caught the ball when it was thrown to him and he sure knew what to do afterward. And, by the way, tight ends are also supposed to block, which is what Conrad and Greg Hart did all afternoon.
That may be critical going forward if Johnson remains the Cats’ QB. When you have a mobile option quarterback, tight ends are supposed to block on the sweep and also make themselves available when plays break down and quarterbacks scamper.
I was also pleased to see Derrick Baity get that interception. He and Chris Westry were supposed to represent the Stoops Era of shut-down defense, and they were appropriately cocky going into the season. During the past week, after two embarrassing losses, Baity was near-tears apologetic. Westry seemed humbled too. Good to see them working to get that swagger back.
On the offensive side, Eddie Gran had said all week, with similar humility, “We’ve got to get back to practice, back to the drawing board and work on fundamentals.”
Fundamentals? You’d think after an extensive summer camp and two weeks into the season, the fundamentals would be down pat. There’s a lot of veteran experience sprinkled around, among the running backs and on the offensive line.
Gran came to Lexington with a profile as an intense, demanding taskmaster. Everything about him suggested somebody who doesn’t sleep late and linger over a doughnut and the morning crossword puzzle.
But he’s also the third offensive coordinator in three years here. There’s clearly work to be done, things to be reversed and unlearned. And while playing in the SEC is the Ph.D. seminar of college football, some of his players are still in freshman biology.
I don’t want to seem too weak-kneed and woozy about one game. There are still a great many questions to be answered, and the SEC comes calling again on Saturday. South Carolina is 2-1 but has scored just 47 points in three games. The Gamecocks beat East Carolina by five, Vanderbilt by three.
They’re playing with a true freshman quarterback. They gave up 519 yards last week. They’re beatable.
But Kentucky has to step up. Again. Every game presents a new and difficult test for this UK team. That’s the Stoops Paradigm right now. VT