Kentucky coach Mark Stoops knows his team didn’t play its sharpest football – far from it. But this time, unlike last season, the Wildcats escaped Southern Miss with a win.
Stooops expressed satisfaction with the Wildcats’ resilience despite a lackluster offensive showing after Kentucky’s 24-17 victory against the Golden Eagles.
“That shows a lot of character, guts and determination from that football team to come out and win that game when you’re not playing your best football, certainly on the offensive side of the ball,” Stoops said.
The offense certainly didn’t live up to expectations in the opener, particularly on the ground. Sophomore running back Benny Snell Jr., a 1,000-yard rusher last year, struggled to find room and managed only 67 yards on 20 carries behind what was expected to be one of the better offensive lines in the SEC.
The Wildcats relied on tight end C.J. Conrad, who finished with 97 receiving yards and a touchdown, and quarterback Stephen Johnson, who rushed for the team’s first score, to put together most of the team’s less-than-impressive 254 yards of total offense.
The Wildcats’ defense made the clinching plays this time – a Darius West strip-sack returned 20 yards by Denzil Ware, and a Chris Westry-forced fumble that was recovered by Courtney Love to squelch the last hopes of Southern Miss.
It showed in the numbers. Kentucky, ranked 110th in the nation in rushing defense last season, held Southern Miss — which has three new starters in its offensive line — to 55 yards on 38 attempts. A 1.4-per-carry average. For the Wildcats, or any rushing defense, it doesn’t get much better than that.
“The improvement defensively was very, very evident,” Stoops said. “We would’ve never won this game had we not improved our run defense, and we certainly did that.”
It wasn’t pretty, but it’s a win. And one season after the Wildcats collapsed against Southern Miss in the 2016 opener, surrendering 34 unanswered points in a 44-35 loss, that’s a sign of progress for Stoops.
With FCS program Eastern Kentucky on deck, the Wildcats should have one more game to warm up before the SEC season begins in earnest against South Carolina on September 16.
“I’m not worried. I know we’ll get better,” Stoops said. “We’ll get some things fixed and we’ll go from there.”
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