[caption id="attachment_207364" align="alignnone" width="2448"] © Mark Zerof
During today's three-and-a-half hour game, I'm pretty sure Kentucky fans experienced every emotion possible as the Cats stumbled and rumbled to a 62-42 win over New Mexico State. Fortunately, the outcome was in our favor, but man, it was messy.
The game couldn't have gotten off to a worse start. After Drew Barker threw an interception on the first drive and had to be carted off the field with a back injury, New Mexico State scored on its second play from scrimmage, a 35-yard pass from Tyler Rodgers that spoke of things to come. Kentucky's defense flatlined during the rest of the half, allowing New Mexico State put up 35 points and 345 yards of total offense, the most by the Aggies against an FBS team since 2007. With the score tied at 35 at half, Mark Stoops' days appeared numbered, but thankfully, the offense lit the field on fire in the second half, putting up four more touchdowns behind three stars: Benny Snell, CJ Conrad, and Stephen Johnson.
Let's break it down, starting with the good...
Benny Snell was a superstar
In his first major game action, true freshman Benny Snell was a superstar, putting up 136 yards and FOUR touchdowns on 17 attempts, tying a UK record for the most rushing touchdowns in a single game. Yes, it was just New Mexico State, but Snell looked like a true SEC running back, eluding and dragging defenders down the field. There are several impressive plays to choose from, but watching him power across the goal line for his fourth touchdown was something special:
Kentucky's rushing attacked finally clicked this afternoon, with Benny and Boom Williams combining for 317 yards and five touchdowns. Boom had 181 yards on 18 attempts, including a beautiful 63-yard touchdown run to tie the game at seven in the first quarter. As Mark Stoops said, Benny's powerful running style is the perfect compliment to Boom's flash and speed. JoJo Kemp is expected to be back next week after sitting out with an ankle injury, but Benny's future is bright. (Even if the "Snell" puns are not.)
There's the CJ Conrad we've been waiting for
It says a lot about the offense's performance that CJ Conrad scored three touchdowns and he's not the first player I wrote about. After he dropped the first play of the season, fans have been clamoring for more Conrad. The talented tight end came in to today's game with only one catch for five yards, but today, he had five catches for 133 yards and three touchdowns, the most receiving touchdowns since Dicky Lyons, Jr. vs. Florida in 2007. Want to go back even further? Conrad is the first UK tight end with three touchdowns since James Whalen vs. Georgia in 1999.
Watch him walk the tightrope on his first TD:
Is Stephen Johnson your new QB?
When Drew Barker was carted off the field after the first series, things did not bode well for Kentucky. After a so-so performance vs. Florida, Stephen Johnson stepped in and firmly took control of the UK offense, confidently leading the Cats down the field and making everyone wonder why he wasn't in charge all along. Johnson finished the game 17-22 for 310 yards, 3 touchdowns and ZERO interceptions, and also ran for 51 yards on 10 carries. Under his hand, Kentucky put up 692 yards of total offense, the most since the Cats put up 801 yards vs. Louisville in 1998 and the second most in the program's history.
Yes, New Mexico State's defense ranked 97th in the country coming into this game, but Johnson kept the offense moving and took care of the football. Even though he might have a quarterback controversy on his hands, Stoops was pleased with Johnson's performance.
"I thought he really calmed down and made some good decisions, because early on it was a little rough and he settled in and he has a lot of poise. And that we need right now. So it was really nice to see him, he really made good decisions, what it appeared on the sideline, of when to pull it down and get some yards with his legs."
It remains to be seen if Barker can even go next week -- his status is unknown after he was taken to the hospital with a back injury -- but after watching the offense move so well this afternoon, it's hard to imagine going back to him. In fact, Benny Snell told reporters after the game that if it was up to him, the job would already belong to Johnson.
Charles Walker finally returned a punt for a touchdown
It took a season, but Drew Franklin finally gets to say, "I told you so." In the fourth quarter, Charles Walker returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown, the first Cat to do so since Randall Cobb on September 11, 2010. As Stoops joked afterwards, us media folk can finally write about a special teams touchdown. It sure has been a long time.
So, that's all the good stuff. Now, the bad...
The defense is absolutely horrible
We came into this season knowing the defense was vulnerable in spots. Watching teams run all over Kentucky's front seven is alarming, but at least we expected issues there. We didn't expect UK's secondary -- thought to be one of the better units in the SEC before the season -- to be just as big of a liability. I'm not sure I've seen a worse defensive performance by a Kentucky football team than I did in the first half of today's game. Thankfully, the staff made some adjustments at halftime (hurrah!) and things got slightly better in the second half, but man...our defense is not good. New Mexico State racked up 500 yards of total offense (223 rushing, 277 passing), and all without their star running back Larry Rose III.
After giving up 72 points over six quarters, Stoops vowed to be more active with the defense during today's game, but afterwards, even he admitted it was rough performance.
"It wasn't good. It was a combination of things. I talked all week about having a higher football IQ. And we didn't do that. With the first touchdown off of that split. Again, I'm not taking anything away from them, but we flat blew it. That can't happen."
At times, it looked like the defense was completely lost, looking to the sideline to figure out formations and scrambling to get in proper position before the snap. Stoops admitted his unit seemed flummoxed.
"We're searching right now. We got guys that are -- it gets difficult with fits and so on. I don't want to get too complex, but there's, we have got to get some things ironed out. It's getting a little bit confusing to them, even though we're trying to be simple."
Technically, Kentucky won the game. But, considering the defense's abysmal play, how can you NOT be concerned going forward?
For now, a win is a win
As Kentucky football fans, we've been conditioned to expect the worst, and at several points today, it looked like we were going to lose to New Mexico State; however, behind a backup quarterback, a true freshman running back, and a sophomore tight end, the Cats not only got their act together, they put up the second best offensive performance in the program's history. Even if it came against New Mexico State and the defense gave up 42 points, I'll take it after the past two weeks.
Yes, issues on defense loom and the schedule's about to get a LOT tougher, but right now, it sure feels nice to have a few good things to talk about.