Nerves No Problem: Johnson Steadies UK's Ship

Stephen Johnson was nervous, and how could you blame him?

Kentucky’s backup quarterback was thrust into action early in a game against New Mexico State, with starter Drew Barker exiting with a back injury after throwing an interception that put UK in a 7-0 hole. The problem was the Wildcats needed a calming presence behind center to withstand the same kind adversity that had undone them in each of those first two weeks.

“For me, those first two drives I didn’t do very well,” Johnson said. “I needed to calm down myself before I could calm down anybody else.”

That didn’t happen immediately though.

It didn’t happen when Boom Williams took a handoff and jetted 63 yards to tie the game. It certainly didn’t happen when a muffed punt led to the Aggies retaking the lead. What finally did the trick was when Johnson hit C.J. Conrad, who took the pass and tiptoed his way down the sideline for a 73-yard touchdown. 

After that, he was good to go.

“I thought he really calmed down and made some good decisions, because early on it was a little rough and he settled in and he has a lot of poise,” Stoops said. “And that we need right now.”

UK needed every ounce of that poise as New Mexico State went score for score with the Wildcats in a game that was tied 35-35 at halftime. The Aggies would finish with 500 yards of total offense, but Kentucky had 692 behind the dynamic Johnson. The result was a 62-42 win.

“A victory's a victory and we're (1-2), and we got a chance to get to .500 next week and that's the next opportunity and that's what we have to do,” Stoops said. “Our team will get better and there's no doubt about it, I thought it was good things to see Stephen come in and play like that with Drew getting hurt right at the start of the game.”

Johnson completed 17-of-22 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns in getting extended action for just the second time since transferring from junior college this offseason. He viewed his job in doing so as a very simple one. 

“I think I let the game come to me,” Johnson said. “I think the last game at Florida, I was trying to do a little bit too much. Letting my teammates do what they do. Boom Williams. Benny Snell. C.J. Conrad. Those guys, you get the ball to them and they’re going to make moves and they’re going to get touchdowns for you.”

They got plenty of those.

Williams rolled up 188 yards and a score on the ground, forming a formidable one-two punch with Snell. The bruising freshman back had 137 yards and a school record-tying four touchdowns. Conrad, meanwhile, looked the part of the most dangerous UK tight end this side of Jacob Tamme in catching five passes for 133 yards and all of Johnson’s three touchdowns.

The second of those scores, in Conrad’s mind, was proof positive of Johnson’s budding confidence.

The play was a run-pass option in the red zone, the kind of play UK can run with the athletic Johnson at quarterback. Rather than using the legs that allowed him to gain 51 yards on the ground, Johnson saw a Conrad-sized hole in the middle of the New Mexico State defense and adjusted.

“That was a run play,” Conrad said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to pop it to you. Just loop out and I’ll pop it right on you.’ That’s pretty big time for a guy who—it’s, what, his third game? First game playing a lot. For him to do that, it shows a lot of growth.”

That growth led to inevitable postgame questions about the future of the quarterback position, questions no one on the UK coaching staff was going to entertain with Barker’s status so uncertain. He was sent to the hospital for evaluation on a back injury for which Stoops did not have an immediate update.

“The good thing is that our 1s and 2s get a lot of the same reps in practice,” quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said. “So again, we get them ready and we’ll make that determination later on when we talk to Coach Stoops and we figure out how Drew’s doing and what the situation is.”

Whatever happens, don’t expect Johnson’s approach to be any different this week.

“I think I don’t change anything at all,” Johnson said. “Just prepare like I’ve been preparing and go out there and act as if I’m the starter and prepare as if I’m the starter.”

The time for preparation will come later. Johnson’s Saturday night will be all about enjoying his breakout performance and his family in town from his native Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. It’s the first time his mother, father, sister, brother and he have been together in months.

“It was a great day, absolutely,” Johnson said.