LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Mark Stoops led with the positive Saturday night.
“Well, the good news is that we got the victory,” Stoops said after Kentucky’s 24-20 win against Eastern Michigan.
The Wildcats were favored by two touchdowns, but the game came down to a Hail Mary heave. Kentucky safety Mike Edwards intercepted Eastern Michigan’s last chance in the end zone to avoid disaster for Stoops’ squad.
Quarterback Stephen Johnson, running back Benny Snell and guard Nick Haynes admitted after the game that Kentucky tends to play down to the level of its competition . It’s not a sound strategy, but Kentucky notched the all-important “W” to improve to 4-1 on the season.
Here’s how we graded Kentucky’s performance against Eastern Michigan:
Kentucky’s offense hit a low point against Eastern Michigan. The Wildcats were once again held under 30 points, and they managed just 228 yards against the Eagles. Kentucky has plenty to clean up with SEC defenses awaiting.
“We didn’t have an edge,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “My fault.” As for what Gran means by that? “The attitude, the juice, the freakin’ want-to of getting after it and whipping somebody’s tail every snap.”
The most glaring inefficiencies seemed to stem from poor offensive line play. Johnson was sacked 5 times for 41 yards and the Cats managed just 53 rushing yards on 1.4 average yards per carry.
“Everybody’s gonna put it on the O-line, but I know the running backs missed a couple deals today,” Gran said of allowing 5 sacks. “Is it [Johnson] not getting rid of it? Is it the O-line? Some of it. Running backs missed protection. Is it our receivers not expediting? Are they getting open?”
The run game wasn’t working, and after a solid first half in the passing game, Johnson struggled to sustain drives in the second half. His overall numbers through the air were 18 for 27 for 175 yards and 2 touchdowns, but Johnson was just 5 for 11 in the second half for 43 yards.
Garrett Johnson led Kentucky’s receiving corps with 8 catches for 61 yards. Tavin Richardson and Greg Hart hauled in the 2 touchdown passes. Both catches were the first touchdown receptions of their careers.
Johnson fumbled on the first play of the game, and Kentucky’s offense never clicked.
Eastern Michigan’s first offensive drive started at Kentucky’s 20-yard line after Johnson’s fumble. The Eagles led 7-0 after 15 seconds, but scored just 13 points in the final 59 minutes and 45 seconds.
Blitz Brothers Josh Allen and Denzil Ware shined along with Blitz Baby Josh Paschal. Allen, Ware, Paschal, Kengera Daniel and Adrian Middleton contributed in sacking Eastern Michigan quarterback Brogan Roback 5 times. Allen had 7 tackles and is making a case as one of the top outside linebackers in the SEC.
Junior safety Mike Edwards once again made plays in the defensive backfield. Not only did he seal the game with the last-second interception, but Edwards led the team with 8 tackles and 2 pass breakups. Cornerback Derrick Baity, who was held out of practice for much of the week, also broke up a pair of passes and played well. Nickelback Kendall Randolph snagged a fourth-quarter interception.
“Came up with some big sacks and had an opportunity for a few more pressures,” Stoops said of Kentucky’s defense. “And some things we missed, we were a little late on, but overall they played pretty solid.”
And how about Kentucky’s defensive line? No position on either side of the ball was questioned more than the D-line in the preseason, but the group was stingy against the run yet again on Saturday. Eastern Michigan rushed for just 13 yards — half a yard per attempt.
Special teams: B-plus
Besides 2 missed field goals by Austin MacGinnis, it was a great night for the Kentucky special teams. And it’s not like MacGinnis choked away any chances. He made a 39-yard kick and his two misses were both from 53 yards — not exactly high-probability kicks.
The biggest play came via Paschal’s right arm. The true freshman blocked a punt early in the fourth quarter and the offense turned the special teams bonus into 7 points on the next play. The block gave Kentucky a 24-14 lead.
Josh Paschal with the one hand cross body punt block. pic.twitter.com/QzgvcSFSKk
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) September 30, 2017
Another big play came a quarter earlier when Kentucky recovered a muffed punt that led to a field goal.
Graduate transfer Matt Panton had a career day punting for the Wildcats. He launched a 71-yard punt in the second quarter that contributed to a 47-yard average on 8 punts. He pinned Eastern Michigan inside the 20-yard line on 3 of them.
Kentucky should’ve never been in a spot where the game was on the line in the final seconds. If the Cats are truly less motivated against lesser competition, they should consider themselves fortunate for not letting it cost them against Eastern Michigan, Eastern Kentucky or Southern Miss.
In short, Kentucky’s offense was bad on Saturday and its defense was good. And, in the end, it was another win for the 4-1 Wildcats.
Watch: Mark Stoops’ press conference after Eastern Michigan game
The post Kentucky football: Grading the Wildcats’ win against Eastern Michigan appeared first on SEC Country.