By Steve Kaufman
Photo by Victoria Graff
Kentucky is 2-0, just where everybody expected it to be at this point. That would mean on schedule for another bowl game, maybe contention for the SEC East, maybe even an SEC East title.
If this team is really better than last year’s team, it might even portend a second straight win over Louisville. That’s what wins normally do. They make hopes and expectations soar.
But these wins have not done that. These wins have fallen into the “yes . . . but” category. Those confident, muscular predictions all around Big Blue Nation and its supporting media: 38-17 over Southern Miss, 45-10 over Eastern Kentucky. Remember those? It hasn’t turned out that way.
Instead, the Cats have trailed, scrapped, scraped, managed to win but overpowered nobody. And now comes the SEC, starting with South Carolina, which thumped Missouri on Saturday, 31-13. And, by the way, that was a Missouri team that scored 72 points the week before in beating Missouri State.
Well, it was Missouri State. Yeah, and it was Eastern Kentucky.
And the game’s in Columbia. And the Gamecocks are also 2-0.
There are those, of course, who will remind us that a year ago the Cats were 0-2 and headed for the Toilet Bowl. And that’s absolutely true. One the one hand, college football is just 10 weeks in the fall. On the other hand, it’s a long season, full of unexpected twists and turns.
But, as for right now, there’s work to be done.
The offensive line, supposedly the strongest part of this team, has been roiled by injuries, forcing tackles to jump to guard, guards to center. The result has been penalties and bad snaps, and a relatively lackluster rushing game.
You remember the rushing game. Benny and Boom. The redoubtable Jojo Kemp, all competitive passion and fire, the prince of the wildcat formation, rushed for 350 yards, five yards a carry, six touchdowns – and he was the third back.
Benny and Boom had those side-by-side thousand-yard seasons, 21 touchdowns, six and a half yards every time they touched the ball.
Yeah, well. Boom and Jojo are gone. It’s just Benny now, and so far he’s struggled. Too many of those bullrushes were ending just short of the line of scrimmage.
Jordan Jones was an All-SEC linebacker, the voice of the defense. So far this year, his voice has been heard loudest swearing at Southern Miss fans.
Lynn Bowden was the prize of the recruiting class, the dynamic freshman who’d make us all forget Red Grange. Then he didn’t get on the field. Then he did. Then he got right off the field again.
However, you don’t get to be 2-0 by bumbling around, no matter whom you’re playing.
Stephen Johnson has become a poised and effective leader. You probably shouldn’t have to congratulate your quarterback for being able to complete a seven-yard forward pass, but Johnson has been able to bring C.J. Conrad into the offense this year, which is huge – especially for a receiving crew as decimated by transfers and injuries as this one has been.
Johnson was always a fleet scrambler. Now he’s not running for his life so much.
The maligned defensive line has so far been stout, holding opponents to 120 yards rushing – total! That’s impressive, against anyone.
Jones and Denzil Ware have been joined, backing the line, by freshman Josh Paschal and a vastly more consistent Courtney Love. Josh Allen has also contributed.
Remember the punting woes of 2016? Matt Panton has regularly been reversing the field for the Cats. Average yards per punt is a meaningless statistic. What counts is where the ball ends up. And how few punts are returned. Panton punted four times. EKU returned only one, for minus yardage.
But the game ball for Saturday goes to whoever in the locker room prepared and served the halftime elixir that saw Snell shake off his ribs issues and become again the bruising, hard-to-tackle runner who rushed for 91 yards in the second half; that saw Blake Bone suddenly emerge as the downfield threat he’d been predicted to be for three years; that saw the defensive backs finally put a clamp on Eastern’s Ryan Markush; that saw Eddie Gran reconsider the Wildcat formation and keep it in his bag; that saw Jordan Jones just play football.
Whatever was in that drink had better accompany the team to Columbia next week. SEC football is about to begin. The Cats get South Carolina and Florida, back to back.
One thing’s for sure. It’s a whole lot better going in at 2-0.