Backs Carry Cats to Dominant Win

The week was all about Drew Barker.

The redshirt freshman was named Kentucky’s starting quarterback on Monday. Speculation over how Barker would fare in his new role began immediately.

Turns out UK’s running backs might have merited a little more attention.

“The running game was just tremendous tonight, so it was great to hand off to those guys,” Barker said.

With Barker behind center, near-freezing temperatures and snow falling through much of the third quarter, UK turned to its ground game. The Wildcats (5-6, 2-6 Southeastern Conference) outmuscled visiting Charlotte (2-9, 0-7 Conference USA), using a physical running attack to pile up 415 rushing yards in a 58-10 win.

“It was just good on the whole offense,” Mark Stoops said. “I thought the offensive line really did a good job and they had some explosive plays. So, it was good. We had some good run game. I thought we mixed it up pretty well.”

While Barker took over as the man at quarterback – playing every snap – there was plenty of action to go around for UK’s runners. Jojo Kemp and Boom Williams each surpassed the 100-yard mark, becoming the first pair of Wildcats to accomplish the feat since Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke in 2010.

“We just go by feel, really,” offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said of UK’s running-back rotation. “(Running backs coach) Chad (Scott) handles that. It’s really when Boom gets tired he comes out. And then those other guys, in certain situations today we wanted certain people in the game.”

Williams started the game, but it was Kemp who struck first. The junior scored UK’s first two touchdowns and added a third in the second half in totaling 165 yards.

“It’s always good, but the main goal is winning,” Kemp said. “That’s what we focus on. We’re at a point in time in the season where every win counts so we want to attack each and every week.”

Not to be outdone, Williams carried 16 times for 140 yards and two touchdowns of his own. Williams and Kemp seemed to be going back and forth in competition, but watching his fellow backs succeed may have been Williams’ favorite part of the game.

“It feels good to be able to see all those guys that you’re in the room with every day, watching film with every day,” Williams said. “And not just yourself. Being able to see other guys productive and have fun and do some things. Jojo had a big game. Like I said, Sihiem (King) had a big game.”

King – a true freshman – got in on the action, taking over in the fourth quarter and nearly reaching the 100-yard mark himself. He carried five times for 91 yards, including his first college touchdown on a 62-yard sprint.

King’s long run was one a number of big plays for Kentucky, a welcome sight for a team that came in on a five-game losing streak. The Cats seemed a different group against Charlotte, enjoying themselves and celebrating their largest margin of victory since 2002. The most notable celebration belonged to Williams, who posed for a selfie with a fan following one of his touchdowns.

“It’s just something fun,” Williams said. “You get back on the winning side and you just want to have fun. We wanted to have fun tonight and be loose.”
 
It’s difficult to say how much Barker was the reason for that, but he was inserted as the starter largely to inject energy into a struggling offense. Barker completed 16-of-29 passes for 129 yards and graded himself at a C, but he didn’t commit a turnover and made some clutch first-half throws in tough conditions when the outcome was still in question.

“I think it’s positive, no doubt,” Dawson said. “He looked good out there. He looked calm out there. He made some good decisions out there at the beginning when we had some third-and-mediums, third-and-longs, he banged it on them, which was good to see.”

Barker will be called on to make a few more plays next weekend, as UK will look to clinch bowl eligibility in its season finale vs. Louisville. The situation is identical to last season for Kentucky, though the venue has changed to Commonwealth Stadium.

“It’s very special, a big week for us,” Williams said. “We’re going to prepare for it and be as ready as we possibly can. We’re in the same situation as last year and everybody that was on that team last year knows the feeling that we had. We don’t want to have that same feeling.”

The stakes, clearly, will be high.

“I hope it's electric next Saturday,” Stoops said. “I appreciate the fans that were there today. I know it was a dismal day playing again at 7:30 again in bad weather most of the day and cold and greatly appreciate the fans that were there. And next week we need everybody in those seats and we need it filled and to come root for this team because we're going to put everything into it.”