LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky’s season has reached the halfway point, and with the Wildcats off this weekend, we took a look back at five plays that have shaped their season.
Coach Mark Stoops’ squad stands at 3-3 (2-2 SEC). Here’s how they got here.
1. Drew Barker’s last play
Kentucky’s season changed when Drew Barker’s offense suddenly became Stephen Johnson’s. It was a third-down play on the Wildcats first offensive series against New Mexico State. Barker was looking for WR Ryan Timmons over the middle of the field but the pass sailed high and was intercepted.
Barker was tackled on a read option the play before, but wasn’t hit after throwing the interception. He looked fine as he jogged off the field, but three weeks later, he still hasn’t returned. It wasn’t necessarily an injury on that play, it’s that Barker has dealt with some “chronic” back pains, as coach Mark Stoops explained the next week.
And while there’s still a chance the former starter could return at some point, Stephen Johnson is Kentucky’s guy. He led the Wildcats to a win in the New Mexico State game as well as victories over South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Johnson’s only loss as a starter was to Alabama, but he’s struggled to produce big numbers in the passing game. After throwing for just 89 yards against Alabama, Johnson was held to 49 yards passing against Vanderbilt.
Barker’s injury was an unexpected shakeup to Kentucky’s offense, but Johnson is winning despite lackluster numbers.
2. Defense seals win against Vanderbilt
Kentucky’s defense had to hold strong for four plays. When Vanderbilt’s last pass flew out of reach, all Stoops could do was throw his headset off.
Beating Vanderbilt kept Kentucky’s bowl chances alive, leveled the Wildcats’ overall and conference record and — at least temporarily — stopped any talk of Stoops being on the hot seat. Kentucky had to win for a variety of reasons, and although it was far from pretty, the result worked for the Wildcats.
It was notable that the defense sealed the win. That side of the ball couldn’t buy a stop in its first three games, but it’s been leaned on in the last three.
3. Southern Miss starts its comeback
This was the beginning of something very bad for Kentucky.
The Wildcats were all but certain to be leading Southern Miss 35-10 at halftime, but a 71-yard Golden Eagles score with 36 seconds left sent Stoops’ squad into a downward spiral. Kentucky still went into the locker room up 35-17, but Southern Miss dominated the second half and stormed back for a 44-35 win. The deep ball before the half was the start of 34 unanswered points.
That streak of unanswered points would reach 79 the next week as Florida led Kentucky 45-0 before the Wildcats finally managed to score.
Kentucky has a chance to secure its first bowl bid for the first time since 2010, but if the squad falls short, it’ll be hard not to look all the way back to the Week 1 loss to Southern Miss.
4. Benny Snell arrives
Freshman RB Benny Snell didn’t record a carry in Kentucky’s first two games, but that all changed in Week 3 against New Mexico State. The whole game belonged to Snell, but the above touchdown score of Snell carrying defenders into the end zone was a real ‘wow’ moment.
He ran for 136 yards and four touchdowns against New Mexico State in his debut. Snell was then given the ball seven plays in a row a week later against South Carolina en route to Kentucky’s game winning drive.
It’s a crowded Wildcats backfield, but Snell emerged as a bruising back against New Mexico State and he’s been the go-to option for tough yards ever since.
5. Drew Barker sacked on first snap at Florida
A trip to the Swamp resulted in the ugliest performance of the year for the Wildcats, and it was evident from the start. On Kentucky’s first play from scrimmage, the offensive line and Barker were crunched by the Florida pass rush. Barker, before being pulled, had thrown three interceptions and two completions against the Gators. Kentucky lost 45-7.
Barker never looked the same after taking that opening sack and he admitted the next week to letting it affect him more than he should. Given the back injury news that would develop a week later, that sack looms large.