Who starts at QB vs. USC and other post-NMSU notes

Jack Pilgrimabout 5 years

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Aritcle written by:Jack PilgrimJack Pilgrim
csliadnwaaehmsl-jpg-large Kentucky did it, there's no longer a goose egg in the win column. That statement alone works wonders for anybody's morale after watching UK football thus far in the season. We won't be having to break out winless shirts similar to the Detroit Lions back in 2008 when they went 0-16 for the historically worst season in NFL history. No matter what is said about the game, a win is a win, and it feels great to just get the first one over with. Though the win is awesome and I'd love to pump sunshine throughout the entire post, there was still a lot of uncertainty following the game against the Aggies. We'll go through both the positives and negatives, among other game notes. Let's start with the question of the hour: Who will be taking the first team reps next week when the South Carolina Gamecocks head to Lexington? If you ask true freshman running back sensation Benny Snell (we'll discuss him a little later), Stephen Johnson separated himself as the team's starter for next Saturday. When asked by reporters following the game if he'd start the JUCO transfer against South Carolina, his response was pretty telling. "Yeah," he said. "I saw an animal. You know what I'm saying? He really did his thing. When his number was called, he was ready." It's easy to see why Snell, among the rest of the BBN, was so high on Johnson following the 62-42 victory. Johnson finished with 310 yards and three touchdowns on 17-22 passing, along with 51 yards on the ground on 10 carries. After back to back throws into the dirt upon entering the game, the Rancho Cucamonga, California product got comfortable and put up a nearly flawless performance. He made fantastic reads, eluded any pressure that came his well, kept plays alive on his feet, and hit the open targets. If a play broke down, he improvised and managed to just make things happen. He looked calm and collected, playing like a seasoned veteran from start to finish. Though last week was technically his "debut," his first real time on the field was nothing short of excellent. But let's touch on the reason for Johnson's time on the field in the first place, Drew Barker's back injury following an early first quarter interception. So far, there has been absolutely nothing of substance as far as injury updates go, and his status for Saturday is still questionable. He was taken to the hospital for tests following the injury, and as of now, I've been told there is great optimism that the injury will not be long term. Will he be out for South Carolina? No one knows quite yet, but his time off the field for injury reasons shouldn't be long. For argument's sake, let's say Drew Barker is perfectly healthy against the Gamecocks. Who starts? Johnson's time on the field was the first time this season the offense looked to have any real momentum. In the first half against Southern Miss, the offense looked excellent under Barker, but the momentum fell flat and the drives began to stall out one after another. In the past six quarters with Barker under center, the offense has had little to no production, and the Burlington, Kentucky native has looked about as flustered as you can be as a starting quarterback in the SEC. Johnson's true debut, as mentioned earlier, was impressive from start to finish. Beyond the result of the NMSU game, Johnson opens the playbook so much more with his speed and athleticism, and his arm is good enough to where the drop off wouldn't be too much from Barker. There were a few throws that would have likely been picked off by elite SEC corners, he's still extremely thin, and the competition was fairly weak, but I truly believe he's earned it. Barring an unbelievable week of recovery and practice for Barker, I think Stephen Johnson will be your starter against the Gamecocks. Aside from QB play, let's dive into the team's offensive success yesterday afternoon. I asked Eddie Gran about CJ Conrad's lack of usage following the Florida game, and Gran promised to incorporate him into the offense more as the season progressed. This was the excerpt from my article last week highlighting Conrad's invisibility thus far:
Following today's game, Eddie Gran touched base on needing to reevaluate personnel, taking personal blame for the team's offensive woes. As part of these offensive issues, he said Conrad's usage needs to be looked at to incorporate him further in the offense. "That's definitely something we need to look at going forward. We tried to get him the ball on the first play last week, went for him again later on in the game. But we definitely need to look at getting him the ball more, that falls back on me. CJ has the potential to be a major player for us going forward, and I need to do my part to make that happen."
One week later, Gran stood true to his promise and put the ball in Conrad's hands. Well done, Eddie Gran. Well done. In fact, Conrad's performance ranked up there in UK football history in multiple categories. The 6'5, 245 lb. tight end finished with 5 catches for 133 yards and three touchdowns, the most receiving touchdowns by any UK player since Dicky Lyons Jr. caught three against Florida in 2007, and the most by a tight end since James Whalen against Georgia in 1999. Conrad also had the first 100 receiving yard game by a UK tight end since Jacob Tamme had one against Tennessee in 2007. The former four-star tight end balled out. Finally. The offense as a whole put up some unbelievable numbers. The unit managed to gain 692 yards, the most ever in a home game for the Wildcats. Scoring 62 points, it was the most points scored in a game since 2010, when Kentucky put up 63 against WKU. This was the first time in program history that the offense managed at least 300 passing yards and 300 rushing yards, as they went for 381 yards on the ground and 311 through the air. How about that group of running backs back there? Man, were they impressive. Benny Snell had his coming out party, rushing for 136 yards and four touchdowns. Boom Williams did typical Boom things, rushing for 181 yards and a touchdown, averaging over ten yards per carry. With Jojo Kemp nursing an ankle injury and available for only emergency reasons, I admit I was a bit nervous with Snell getting so many reps. Needless to say, I was proven wrong, and I couldn't be happier about it. The offense looked outstanding for the majority of the game. The defense, however, did not. SEC Country's Kyle Tucker left us with a few jaw-dropping statistics following the game, but for all the wrong reasons. UK is now ranked 127th out of 128 FBS teams in third-down defense, 122nd in total and scoring defense, 116th in run defense, 112th in pass defense, and 92nd in sacks. Pathetic. Inexcusable. If UK wants to pull off any substantial wins for the remainder of the season, this has to get figured out immediately. Does UK have to dominate on the defensive side of the ball? No, not at all. The offense has the potential to carry a good bit of the weight to outscore opponents, so even a mediocre defensive line and linebacking corps, along with a solid secondary should be enough. A bad defensive line, atrocious linebackers, and mediocre secondary will not do the trick, and UK will struggle to beat any team for the remainder of the year. In the second half of the game, the defense actually made some solid developments, with 35 first half points to just seven the remainder of the afternoon. 42 points given up against anyone is rough, but considering UK's notorious second half defense, I'll take just seven all day, every day. But again, the New Mexico State offense doesn't have nearly the level of talent UK's defense has. There should've been little to no offensive movement by the Aggies all night long, and it ended up being the polar opposite. Transition to include more 4-3 defensive calls, throw in the young guys hungry for playing time, fire somebody, I don't care. Do what it takes to not make the defense the laughingstock of the NCAA anymore. As far as individual performances, there were actually a few solid playmakers holding their own for Kentucky yesterday afternoon, despite the unit giving up 500 yards of total offense. Mike Edwards played extremely well, making some great open field tackles, pass deflections, and bailing out the rest of the secondary's mistakes here and there. On a few occasions, Edwards lost his coverage, but managed to recover quickly enough to make a play on the ball. Mistakes are never good, but I applauded his efforts to not give up on the play. Tymere Dubose made some great developments and pushes on the ball, I came away impressed by him. Denzil Ware had some great pressure on the quarterback, made some terrific plays and tackles. Naquez Pringle and Adrian Middleton also made some impressive plays for the defensive line. Offensively, I was impressed all game long. UK will be up against a much tougher defense than New Mexico State this weekend, but I liked the momentum nonetheless. Johnson was great, running backs were all they were cracked up to be going into the season, and tight ends were utilized. That's all I can ask for. Defensively, I liked only seven points given up in the second half, but other than that, I don't have many positive words. Of all the position groups on the defense, I was most disappointed in the linebackers. The fundamentals are just not there with them, and I feel that they need to improve the most out of anyone on the roster. USC averages roughly 2.5 yards per carry, good for 121st overall in the nation, which definitely bodes well for this weekend. UK needs a great week of practice from this group. The Gamecocks haven't been impressive this season, but they're a significant step above New Mexico State in nearly all facets of the game. UK is currently favored, but it'll be a battle nonetheless next week at Commonwealth Stadium. Let's hope for a great week of practice and for this momentum to continue into game four. This team needs to get to .500.   Follow me on Twitter: @JackPilgrimKSR

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2021-09-26