Kentucky Football — Mississippi Learning
Mississippi Learning—By John Huang
One game doesn’t make for a successful season, but a 24-17 victory over Southern Miss certainly steers the 2017-18 Wildcat football campaign in a favorable direction. Suffice it to say that a second straight season opening loss to the Shannon Dawson coached Golden Eagles could have sent the Mark Stoops bandwagon careening off the side of a big blue cliff. Deep into the fourth quarter, potential disaster was still looming. Long-suffering UK football fans have seen it all before—months of preseason hope and hype negated by a few minutes of inexplicable on-the-field football futility. Fortunately, that was NOT the case in Hattiesburg, as the Cats played well enough to notch victory #1 on their way to a possible breakout season.
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Organic Chemistry was arguably my most difficult class in college. The laboratory portion of the curriculum required us to find the chemical composition of a “mystery compound” or “unknown.” Just the memory of all those unknown compounds staring me in the face still sends my cortisol levels spiking. Prior to the contest, Coach Stoops acknowledged that the first game out of the gate was similarly stressful in that there were a lot of unknowns. What did he subsequently learn, then, about his team after the victory?
“That shows a lot of character, a lot of guts, a lot of determination from that football team to come out and win that game when you’re not playing your best football,” said a relieved Coach Stoops in his post-game presser held in a dark and musty storage area deep within the bowels of M. M. Roberts Stadium. “It was just a hard-fought tough victory. It was a thing of beauty to me. I know a lot of people are gonna have their opinions, but I loved it.”
Quarterback Stephen Johnson, who passed for 176 yards with 1 TD and rushed for 20 yards with another TD also loved it. “As a whole team, we can fight for an entire 60 minutes,” he said when I asked him about what he learned today. “Coach Gran’s main thing is the story of Peter in the Bible—where we try to stay centered and stay focused. We try not to focus on the negative too much, but really try to do our job and move the ball down the field.”
Whether a thing of beauty or just staying focused, here’s what I learned from the win. CJ Conrad is a stud. You know it, I know it, and pretty soon the whole football world will know it. Even though opponents will be keying a lot more on the UK tight end as the season progresses, we should be seeing a lot more of CJ’s “Gronk-like” catch and runs as part of the UK playbook package.
As Steve Spurrier so famously once said, “Kentucky’s got themselves a pretty good punter.” Matt Panton, the transfer from Columbia University, temporarily fulfilled that role and answered the punting unknown for the Wildcats. At least on this particular afternoon, the Aussie style punter from Down Under performed quite admirably with some long and well-placed kicks.
Kentucky may also have themselves a pretty good defense by year end. Even the often-questioned defensive line kept Ito Smith and the Southern Miss offense under wraps for most of the sweltering afternoon. They tired a bit as the game progressed, and Southern Miss is no Florida, but it was encouraging to see Kentucky remain competitive even when their offense sputtered on the field.
Stephen Johnson is the starting quarterback and it should be his job to lose for the rest of the season. An effective economy thrives on competition, so it’s great to have Drew Barker ready and waiting in the wings, but Johnson has done nothing to jeopardize his position at the top of the food chain. Two-quarterback systems rarely succeed. There can be no quarterback controversy if this TEAM is to succeed.
And finally, the much-touted UK depth is very real this year. Six true freshmen bagged some meaningful playing time in the opener. In big boy football, you simply can’t have too many of anything. As the season moves forward, this excess of depth at all positions will invariably prove invaluable.
What’s next for Kentucky after win #1? Hopefully win #2. With Eastern Kentucky coming on deck, the Wildcats should be able to refine and refurbish many of their Mississippi shortcomings. Although many questions remain about the surprising ineffectiveness of the Wildcat formation, the all-star offensive line, and our star-studded secondary, the inaugural event at Kroger Field next week against a vastly inferior opponent is a sure recipe for getting things fixed. There can be no letdowns, even in a “gimme” game against the overmatched Colonels—where hopefully, many more unknowns will continue to be beautifully revealed.
John Huang is a UK Sports columnist for Nolan Group Media. He can be reached at www.huangswhinings.com and on Twitter @KYHuangs.