LEXINGTON, Ky. — The quarterback situation is in flux and the defense isn’t showing signs of improvement, but coach Mark Stoops’ squad has a chance to defy the doubters with South Carolina coming to town this weekend.
The Wildcats (1-2, 0-1 SEC) are looking to notch their third straight win over the Gamecocks at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. South Carolina (2-1, 1-1) hits the road for its third conference game after traveling to Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.
Here are five keys for Kentucky on Saturday.
5. Let Johnson loose
Backup QB Stephen Johnson led Kentucky’s offense to 692 yards, passing for 310 with three scores, in a 62-point showing last weekend. The numbers were inflated by the porous New Mexico State defense, but UK had just seven points in its last six quarters before that performance.
Johnson looks all but certain to start against the Gamecocks after Stoops said it would take a “miraculous recovery” for sophomore Drew Barker, dealing with a chronic back injury, to be ready Saturday.
Johnson lacks the pro-style stature of Barker, 183 pounds to Barker’s 225, but he can make plays with his feet. There are concerns with letting him run too much, but offensive Eddie Gran gets to add another dimension to his offense with Johnson taking snaps.
4. Keep it on the ground
No matter who starts at quarterback, Gran’s offense will look to run and then run some more.
Establishing the ground game puts the ball in the hands of UK’s top playmakers.
Junior Boom Williams is 15th in the nation in total rushing and is averaging almost eight yards per carry. Freshman Benny Snell made his backfield debut last week, finding the end zone four times on 136 yards. Senior Jojo Kemp was held out last week but Stoops said he has a chance to play Saturday.
Another reason UK should keep it on the ground? South Carolina ranks 100th in rushing yards allowed.
3. Force the freshman into mistakes
True freshman Brandon McIlwain will lead the SEC’s lowest scoring offense into Lexington. The former four-star recruit will try to get the Gamecocks offense off the ground.
South Carolina is averaging 15.7 points per game — 120th in the nation. Coach Will Muschamp’s side has struggled to move the ball via the run or pass, but the Wildcats need to see what McIlwain can do through the air.
With as bad as South Carolina’s offense has been, UK’s defense has been worse. The Wildcats rank 122nd with an average of 528 yards given up per game. D.J. Eliot’s defense has struggled equally against the run and pass, but if the Wildcats find a way to slow the South Carolina rushing attack, all pressure will be on McIlwain.
2. Hold onto the ball
Kentucky has turned the ball over 10 times. Only Kansas has a worse mark. Turnovers have limited UK’s time of possession and kept the defense on the field for stretches it can’t sustain.
It’s an issue to keep a close eye on given the quarterback situation.
1. Play four quarters
This, of course, is nothing new for the Cats. The second half in last year’s finale against Louisville, the second half against Southern Miss and the first half against New Mexico State were all periods when the game got away from UK.
Kentucky pulled away against New Mexico State, but South Carolina isn’t New Mexico State. The lapses have been attributed to a lack of depth and experience, but that excuse is only viable for so long.