South Carolina finally got to its home opener last Saturday. But now it’s back on the road and back into conference play with a trip to Kentucky to face the Wildcats.
Joe Mussatto, who covers Kentucky for SEC Country, was a good sport in answering five questions leading up to kickoff in Lexington at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday.
Wilson: How does the Kentucky offense change with Stephen Johnson at the helm instead of Drew Barker?
Mussatto: That’s a really good question in that the offense doesn’t change all that much, but how it’s run will change. Drew Barker is the typical big-bodied pocket passer without much running ability. Stephen Johnson is about 40 pounds lighter, and while he doesn’t have Barker’s arm, he can create more with his legs.
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said Tuesday that the quarterback run is always a part of UK’s offense, but it never seemed that way with Barker. Kentucky has a lot of read looks where there’s an option for the quarterback to keep, and with Johnson starting, I think he’ll take that look much more than Barker did.
Wilson: Obviously, it has been a rocky start to the year for Kentucky. What is the morale and attitude of the players after three games?
Mussatto: It seemed to be better coming off a win, but Mark Stoops was as fiery after Wednesday’s practice as he’s been this season. Stoops is either fed up with his defense or doing whatever he can to motivate them for Saturday. It’s harder to gauge player morale, but right now, I don’t see it as an issue. This weekend could swing the pendulum in a big way depending on the result. Morale will skyrocket with a win, but a 1-3 start would be detrimental to any positivity.
Wilson: The struggles defensively for Kentucky seem surprising given Mark Stoops’ background. Why have the Wildcats been having issues defensively this season?
Mussatto: His pedigree as a defensive coach is one reason I think he’s ashamed of how UK has played on that side of the ball. The Wildcats have given up at least 40 points in every game, and there isn’t just one issue to fix. A talented cornerback duo was hyped preseason, but the long ball has given UK fits. The defense has been even worse against the run. Stoops harped on a lack of concentration and maturity on defense. It’s a bigger problem than X’s and O’s for Kentucky.
Wilson: These two teams have played many close games in the past decade. What about the programs do you think leads to tightly contested games?
Mussatto: This game has been played early in the season for the last few years. I think that’s one factor. Teams are still trying to figure themselves out at this point, and that’s true for this season. South Carolina is breaking in a new staff and new quarterback, while Kentucky is sorting through its own issues as well. On top of that, it’s been a fight to stay out of the bottom tier of the SEC East.
Wilson: How do you see things unfolding Saturday?
Mussatto: You’ve got a South Carolina offense that hasn’t scored too many points against a Kentucky defense that’s allowed bunches of them. Something has to give.
Kentucky’s offense has a playmaker at quarterback in Stephen Johnson, but he’s unproven. I think UK will be able to get the ground game going behind running back Boom Williams. That will take pressure off Johnson and keep the defense off the field — both of those are vital for UK to win. I know South Carolina’s offense has struggled, but UK’s defense has struggled even more. It’s hard to trust a true freshman quarterback on the road, but if he’s composed, I think Kentucky’s defense will have trouble containing him.