Cats Win the Kind of Game They’ll Have to Keep Winning
Mark Stoops knew his usefulness in his press conference following Kentucky’s win over Missouri on Saturday night would be limited.
“You’re going to ask me specific questions right now and it's really like a blur to me, to be honest with you,” Stoops said.
The three hours and 16 minutes that passed during the 21-13 victory – UK’s first over a ranked opponent since 2010 – flew by. Stoops could barely remember specifics, his memory limited to broad strokes.
But what really stuck out for Stoops – and what is likely most significant about Saturday night – is that the Wildcats won exactly the kind of game they’re going to have to keep winning to get where they want to go. For lack of a better description, they won a truly Southeastern Conference kind of game.
“It was just very gratifying to win a game like that against such a quality opponent in a hard-fought SEC football game,” Stoops said.
The Tigers, the two-time defending SEC East champions, weren’t going to give an inch. For Kentucky (3-1, 2-1 SEC) to win, it was going to take everyone. On Saturday, everyone showed up.
“Just what you're so proud of is a complete game in just such a tough football game against a good team,” Stoops said. “It's nice to come out on the right end of that.”
On offense, the Cats contended with a Missouri defense allowing just 9.7 points per game (fifth nationally) ahead of a trip to Commonwealth Stadium, and contended well. In spite of finding few running lanes and managing only 120 yards on 38 carries, UK was able to move the ball on the strength of Patrick Towles’ arm, his offensive line’s protection and his wide receivers’ play-making ability.
“We made the plays tonight down the field and, as a defensive guy, that's always tough. … I know, as a defensive play caller for all those years, you get defenses on their heels and you get them thinking about it,” Stoops said. “They have to pick their spots, too. So, I know that Coach (Shannon) Dawson did a very good job of staying aggressive and really we were happy about that.”
Towles put that aggressiveness into action, completing 22-of-27 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns and adding an athletic 14-yard scramble for UK’s third score. After a week of criticism following an 8-for-24 effort in a 14-9 loss to Florida on Saturday, Towles silenced the critics, though he never paid them much mind to begin with.
“You just gotta play free,” Towles said. “We’re not worried about anybody else but us and me. If I get in the habit of what everybody else thinks, I wouldn’t be very good. But I’m going out there and just trying to make plays. I had a lot of help. Offensive line played awesome and we were able to make some throws.”
And his receivers were able to catch them.
Garrett Johnson hauled in six catches for 119 yards and tight end C.J. Conrad had the first three of his career for 55 yards and the go-ahead touchdown. In the fourth quarter, Dorian Baker made the play of the game with a 25-yard one-handed catch and later snagged a five-yard fade route for UK’s final score.
“I knew I had it,” Baker said of the play likely to make the SportsCenter Top 10. “I kind of do that at practice all the time. It’s a routine catch. It’s like catching with two hands. I can do it with one.”
That speaks to another important point in Stoops’ mind. A week ago, UK had a team full of players trying to make the game-breaking play. On Saturday, the Cats were back to the way they’re supposed to be: focusing on doing what they do every day in practice, even if it’s a circus catch along the sideline.
“We don't need guys to go be supermen,” Stoops said. “We just need to go be who they are. We have a good team, and they just need to go play within themselves.”
When it comes to playing to his strengths, no one does that better than Jojo Kemp.
The junior running back has been overshadowed at times, but he was the one salting away Kentucky’s victory. Kemp carried four times for 20 yards to pick up two clock-killing first downs when the Tigers knew the run was coming.
“It means a lot,” said Kemp, who had 13 carries for 68 yards. “They still believe in me. Like I said, every time I get my opportunity on the field, I gotta make the best of it. That’s what I’m here to do and it was just a great feeling.”
Kemp’s close-out performance marked the third time in as many Kentucky wins that the Cats have finished off an opponent with the ground game.
“That's how you win close games,” Stoops said. “If you're not able to do that, you would lose more than half of them. And that's where we're getting better. I think that's a big part of why I hired Shannon. Because you have to have some balance. If you don't have balance, you're not going to win these type of games right here.”
Which back will play a leading role in that next time around remains to be seen.
“I just think that our guys need to understand that one game it's going to maybe be this guy is hot or different things, and he again just made some tough runs,” Stoops said. “I don't know why it was Jojo, you'll have to ask Shannon, but he had some good, tough runs.”
UK will need every one of its weapons on offense at some point this season, and the same is true on the other side of the ball. The win over Missouri proved it, as UK held the Tigers to a single touchdown and 338 total yards.
Sophomore defensive tackle Regie Meant was playing the best football of his career before a shoulder injury forced him to miss the Missouri game. Stepping up in his stead, C.J. Johnson followed up a six-tackle outing vs. Florida by making a career-high 11 tackles, including a sack.
“Me and Regie talked a lot and I told Regie I was going to hold it down for him,” Johnson said. “I missed him this game because I felt like I played a hundred snaps.”
Johnson and the Cats will get a deserved rest on Sunday, but a big locker-room celebration came first.
“Today it was a great win,” Kemp said. “Everybody was happy. It was great to see the fans up. Like I said, we came to change the game and once we get those type of wins, it’s great to see that the program is moving in the right direction.”
That progress will continue if the Cats can keep winning games like the one they just did.
“We’ve got a lot of excitement going in our program right now, and I want to keep on bringing the people back,” Stoops said. “I want this energy, I want this excitement and I want to continue to grow.”