LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky’s offense once carried the pressure of propping up its leaky defense, but Saturday it was the defense that sealed the Wildcats win.
Kentucky (3-3, 2-2 SEC) held on in the final seconds to beat Vanderbilt (2-4, 0-3 SEC) despite passing for just 49 yards. The win pushed the Wildcats to third place in the SEC East, kept bowl chances alive and took pressure off coach Mark Stoops.
Here’s how we graded the performance:
The ground game was close to its best but the passing attack was nonexistent.
Kentucky had shown signs the last few weeks of becoming a one-dimensional offense, and Saturday saw the full transformation. Junior QB Stephen Johnson was 10-of-24 through the air with no touchdowns, 1 interception and just 49 yards.
The Wildcats have a strong stable of running backs, but offensive coordinator Eddie Gran is going to have a tough time keeping defenses honest if the passing game poses no threat. Kentucky’s last passing touchdown? Three weeks ago against New Mexico State.
Not to be lost in a bad passing performance was a dominant rushing attack, and Johnson was a big part of it. The quarterback ran for a season-best 55 yards. Senior RB Jojo Kemp added another 55 and junior Boom Williams had 54 on 6 yards per carry.
But freshman RB Benny Snell was again the star of the backfield. Snell rumbled for 94 yards on a career-high 20 attempts. Williams is still the big-play back, but only Snell can do things like this:
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) October 8, 2016
Kentucky held Vanderbilt to 282 yards, but this grade is a result of the last four plays of the game. The Wildcats needed to make four stops in a row to win the game, and they did it.
All bets would’ve been on an opposing score after seeing the Wildcats give up 40 or more points in their first three games, but it’s a different defense now — even against a bad Vanderbilt offense.
Kentucky held Vanderbilt to 141 yards apiece through the air and on the ground. One of Vanderbilt’s scores came on a scoop and score off Williams’ fumble, so the Kentucky defense allowed just 6 points on 2 field goals.
Special teams: C
Stoops has been proud of his special teams the whole season, and it’s been Kentucky’s most consistent unit. It wasn’t the case Saturday, but it could’ve been worse.
Points were at a premium and Austin MacGinnis converted on both of his field goal tries of 46 and 28 yards.
The sloppy areas were on punts and an-almost costly kickoff return. Vanderbilt returned a kickoff 65 yards with just 20 seconds left in the first half. It looked like it would lead to another late score allowed by the Wildcats, but the defense bailed out the coverage unit.
The win was swirling inside Commonwealth Stadium, but Grant McKinniss wasn’t at his best. After averaging almost 45 yards a punt at Alabama, McKinniss averaged just 36 yards on 5 attempts against Vanderbilt.
Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot have tag-teamed leading the defense, and it’s been working. Vanderbilt never looked comfortable with the ball, and a physical Wildcats defense should get credit for the win.
Gran’s play-calling in the first half was effective, and he did a good job of adapting to an inaccurate Johnson in the second half. The Wildcats embraced their one dimensionality and pounded Vanderbilt in the second half behind Snell hammering his way through the Commodores front.
Kentucky was 3-of-3 on 4th down, including a 1-yard conversion on its final drive that led to a field goal. Stoops was aggressive and it paid off.
It sure didn’t look nice, but the result should be a thing of beauty in the eyes of Stoops and Co.
The offense is in desperate need of a reliable passing game, but the defense continued its growth.
Kentucky is 2-2 in the SEC after a miserable start to the season.