Stoops glad to be 2-0 needing to improve versus 0-2 like last year and needing to improve

Benny Snell ran for 102 yards and one score Saturday. (Keyli Chisesi)

By LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON — Kentucky is 2-0, but it is not exactly the kind of 2-0 start that most Kentucky fans were anticipating.

After holding off Southern Mississippi on the road to open the season, Kentucky had to overcome a 13-3 second-quarter deficit before beating underdog Eastern Kentucky 27-16 here Saturday.

If you are a UK optimist, the good news is that two years ago UK had to go to overtime to beat Eastern Kentucky. Kentucky also ran for 207 yards, including 103 yards and one score by Benny Snell, and quarterback Stephen Johnson was 15-for-22 passing for 224 yards with one touchdown. Johnson also ran six times for 48 yards and a score.

If you are a UK pessimist, Kentucky quarterbacks got sacked three times and the Colonels had eight tackles for loss. Quarterback Tim Boyle, a Connecticut transfer, passes for 202 yards and one score. If the Colonels had not turned the ball over twice, including once inside the UK 5-yard line and been penalized 90 yards, the offensive numbers would have been better.

Want more reason to worry if you are a UK fan? The Cats are beat up. Snell briefly left the game in the first half to have his ribs X-rayed before returning.

“The X-rays were negative but those bruised ribs get very sore,” coach Mark Stoops said.

Linebacker Jordan Jones seemed to injure his shoulder late in the game and left with ice on his shoulder without doing any media interview. Offensive lineman Landon Young and Kyle Meadows both went down and missed playing time and starting center Bunchy Stallings was held out of the first half because of an injury suffered last week.

“We are a little more beat up now than last year. We were very fortunate last year,” UK offensive line coach John Schlarman, who lost starting tackle Cole Mosier to a season-ending injury in August, said.

“We have had to move guys around. Guys got banged up but we still rushed for 200 yards. We definitely gave up pressures from the o-line, and we have to fix that. But we got much stronger as the year went on last year and we will again,” Stoops said.

The UK head coach also said to give Eastern Kentucky credit for some of UK’s woes Saturday.

“We knew all week it would be a tough game. I know a lot of people didn’t, but we did. They did a nice job keeping us off balance and being efficient with their offense,” Stoops said. “Give our team credit for doing what had to do to win the game. We are 2-0, feels good. We will get better. We have been in this position before. We were last year and the record was not the same.”

True. Kentucky was 0-2 at this point last year after losing to Southern Miss at home and getting pummeled by Florida on the road. Yet UK finished the regular season 7-5 by winning seven of the final 10 games.

“Offensively it was frustrating at times, but we rushed for over 200 yards, threw for 9ver 200 yards. We had some silly mistakes. But nobody needs to hit the panic button,” Stoops said.

Not with perhaps the two key games of the season coming up. Kentucky plays at South Carolina and then returns home to host Florida. Win one or both, and Cat fans are going to be really happy.

But remember not to get spoiled by one seven-win season and a trip to the TaxSlayer Bowl. Former Cats Pause publisher/owner Oscar Combs reminded me Saturday that if you were 63 years old or younger, you had never seen a top 20 Kentucky team play in a bowl game.

Think about that.

Kentucky’s 2007 team that beat eventual national champion LSU during the regular season and went to the Music City Bowl got to No. 8 in the rankings but was unranked by bowl time. Kentucky’s 10-1 team in 1977 was in the top five, but ineligible for postseason play.

“It feels very good to be 2-0 but we know we have got a lot more in us,” Stoops said. “They (players) did not come in here and want to lay around and not play well. It’s about discipline and execution, and that we can get fixed.”

Stephen Johnson agreed. He didn’t let it bother him when Stoops gave Drew Barker, last year’s starter until he was hurt in game three, two series in the first half with UK trailing 13-3. He came in and led a late first-half touchdown drive and then got the win — again — for UK in the second half.

“We know we can be better, and will be better,” Johnson said. “We are still putting things together. We have a lot of players back, but we also have some key guys either gone or hurting. But this offense is going to be fine.”

Is he right or wrong? I don’t know but the next two games should determine just how good Kentucky really is this season.

3 comments

  1. Gran’s play calling has been very boring and predictable. He continues to forget that we do have Conrad on the team for second straight year. Conrad will hopefully end up in the pros, but it won’t be because of any assistance from Gran.

  2. Two games does not a season make, and as last year demonstrated, the way the final 10 games play out will not be based on how the first two actually did play out.

    It is much better to be 2-0 rather than 0-2, but one of those two losses was to a powerful Florida team on the road, so the 0-2 vs 2-0 comparison does not quite ring true. The better mark for comparison will be after game 4 when the array of opponents are more favorably compared, and the team has played enough games to establish a clearer identity.

    In week 1, I thought the defense and special teams were much improved, and the offense struggled. In week 2, I think the defense was not a disappointment, the special teams were less special than week 1, and the offense struggled.

    Offensively, I don’t think the problem is the QB, but is elsewhere, perhaps offensive line. Johnson’s 2 week QB efficiency has been very strong. Last year, he finished with a rating of 134.2, which ranked #60. In addition, he was fumble prone. At this point of 2017, his rating is 157.6, which is #28, and he has not fumbled.

    Defensively, the Cats are holding opponents to 16.5 ppg, while against their first two non-conference opponents last year, the defense allowed 43 ppg to Southern Miss and New Mexico State. Yes, after that pitiful 3 game start averaging over 43 ppg allowed, the Cats’ defense did tighten up, but in games 4-12, the defense still allowed 27 ppg. The last time any UK defense held opponents under 20 ppg for a season was 1993 (17.7 ppg) and before that, Jerry Claiborne was the coach and his teams did it 6 consecutive seasons. While it is too early to say, I am hopeful that this team will be in the low 20s this season, and I can at least maintain a dream of a defense holding opponents to less than 20 ppg. That is top tier SEC quality defense.

    Yes, the offense has struggled, but it is too early to condemn the offense to the trash pile. Let’s check on the record and performance after game 4.

  3. Good win for the Cats. EKU came to play as they always do. EKU is a storied program in their own way, and a football oriented school. They have a lot of pride. Elder had a great game plan. The UK offense was much more balanced as the game unfolded, and that was good to see. I like the sound of 2-0. UK must face a good South Carolina team now. That will be a real test for this UK team. We will really see if this team is ready to take the next step as a contender in the SEC East.

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