Next Step in UK's Growth to Get an Early Start

Night games have become the norm for Kentucky football, but this week the Wildcats will kick off against Missouri at noon ET, 11 a.m. local time.

For Mark Stoops, that’s a concern.

“You know, we play an 11 o’clock game and what do our players have to do, they have to be selfless again all week,” Stoops said on Monday. “They have to prepare and watch film and practice hard and they also have to get some sleep. We got to wake up and play at 11 o’clock Saturday.”

Stoops would later joke some of his players would prefer to still be sleeping in the late morning on the weekend, but the Cats (4-3, 3-2 SEC) say that’s not the case. Riding a streak of four wins in five games, there’s no place they’d rather be on a fall Saturday than the gridiron.

“I think it’s better to wake up early for a game because you’re anxious all day and then you play at like 7 o’clock,” cornerback Derrick Baity said. “But you’re anxious all day so I think it’s better for us to play early anyway.”

Josh Allen, meanwhile, doesn’t even expect to need an alarm ahead of a matchup with Missouri (2-5, 0-3 SEC)

“If you’re up and you know what’s about to happen, you know you’re going to play a game, you’re going to be up and excited,” Allen said. “I probably still won’t sleep before the game. I really don’t sleep now before a game because I’m so excited I’m going to play. Afternoon, night game, it’s still all the same.”

The Cats – especially the ones on the defensive side of the ball – better not be bleary-eyed come Saturday morning. The Tiger offense will take advantage if they are.

Missouri leads the SEC at 505 yards of total offense per game, averaging 34.9 points in the process. Impressive numbers to be sure, but it’s the pace at which the Tigers pile them up that really has UK’s attention. Missouri is running an average of more than 80 plays per game and is fresh off a game against Middle Tennessee in which it ran an astounding 104 plays in a 51-45 defeat.

“We’ve just got to get ready for the tempo. We have to have a lot of substitutions,” defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. “We have to have a lot of guys play. We need to play with high energy every down, and we need to make sure we have high urgency, and those are the things we’re emphasizing this week in practice.”

Only a few weeks ago, this challenge would have been a much more difficult one for UK to cope with. Over that time, the Cats have built quality depth, driving UK’s rise to second place in the SEC East.

“The depth now, it really helps,” Baity said. “Because we feel confident in every player that’s going in. One or a two, we feel confident with any player going in.”

The other equalizer when it comes to Missouri’s fast-paced attack is UK’s ground game.

After managing less than 100 yards on the ground in two losses to open the season, UK has rolled up at least 216 rushing yards in its four victories. With three backs – Boom Williams, Jojo Kemp and Benny Snell, Jr. – combining with athletic quarterback Stephen Johnson III, the Cats can give their defense a chance to breathe if they execute.

“Our run game is phenomenal,” Johnson said. “With Jojo, Benny and Boom, that trifecta right there is just able to do whatever we want to with the ball and just switch those guys out whenever we need to. Our offensive line is fantastic and…our perimeter blocking is fantastic as well. Once we get past the trenches, our receivers make down-the-field blocks extending plays for us.”

The other thing UK’s rushing attack can do is open up the pass for Johnson. The junior had struggled throwing the ball in his previous three games, but broke out with 292 yards passing in a last-second win over Mississippi State on Saturday.

“We came into this thing saying in this league you got to run the ball, and we've been fortunate we've been able to do that,” head coach of the offense Eddie Gran said. “I think it's showed that it's helped our passing game this last week. We had some guys open and it was because of the run game. So I think they go hand in hand and I think our kids have bought into what we're doing and what we're coaching.”

UK’s balanced offense was derailed only by miscues that have happened too often so far this season. There were drops and a missed field goal early, then two more fumbles by Johnson to drop the Cats’ turnover margin to minus-nine on the season. With that in mind, quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said this week UK’s offense is a mere five or six plays away from being even better.

“We have a lot of room to grow,” Johnson said. “Me personally, not letting go of the football. If I don’t do that, that game’s ours at the end of the fourth quarter. I think he’s talking about plays like that and other plays where if we just catch a couple balls or make a few other blocks, we’ve got the potential to be a fantastic offense.”

With five games to go starting with a trip to Missouri, the Cats’ fate could be decided by how they address that handful of plays that’s been biting them.

“It says a little bit about our team in terms of how we’ve been able to overcome that,” Gran said. “It’s like I told them the other day, how good we actually could be in putting people away. That’s got to get fixed if we want to meet our goals and do what we have to do and finish.”