Rapid Reaction: Kentucky races to bowl eligibility
LEXINGTON, Ky. — It wasn’t pretty early, but Kentucky erased a first-quarter deficit and raced past FCS foe Austin Peay 49-13 for the Wildcats’ sixth victory of the season.
With the win, Kentucky earns bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2010 season, which was former coach Joker Phillips’s first year in Lexington.
For a Kentucky team that has played all but the season’s first two games without starting QB Drew Barker, a bowl appearance will be the biggest indication of progress in the fourth year of coach Mark Stoops’ tenure.
It hasn’t been the smoothest of seasons for Stoops, starting with the stunning opener. UK jumped to a 35-10 advantage over Southern Miss late in the first half of that game, but stumbled to a 44-35 loss, which placed Stoops’ job in serious jeopardy. A 45-7 hammering at Florida in Week 2 did little to change the situation. On the first series of UK’s third game, against New Mexico State, Barker aggravated a back injury, which turned out to be season-ending.
Kentucky was forced to turn to inexperienced JUCO QB Stephen Johnson. Johnson is a dual-threat player who lacks Barker’s pocket presence, but can scramble and extend plays. Behind Johnson and a burgeoning run game led by junior Stanley “Boom” Williams and freshman Benny Snell, Kentucky won four SEC games and has now positioned itself for a bowl berth.
Very little progress was in evidence early Saturday against Austin Peay, which had lost 26 consecutive games. In the first quarter, the Governors held a 134-22 total yardage advantage and led UK 7-0. On the first play of the second quarter, UK quarterback Luke Wright threw a pick-six to Austin Peay linebacker Gunnar Scholato. Wright was in the game because Stephen Johnson was banged up and had been indicated to be available only “for emergency duty.”
Apparently, a 13-point deficit was an emergency, because Johnson checked in after the pick-six and jump-started UK to a 21-point second quarter, with touchdown passes to tight end C.J. Conrad and receiver Garrett Johnson.
After the half, UK stretched its lead with touchdown runs from Williams and Snell, who became the first Wildcats running backs to top 1,000 yards in the same season.
From there, the anticipated blowout was underway. Snell finished with 152 yards and two touchdowns Saturday.
The party only intensified when third-string running back Jojo Kemp added his own scoring run to cap his own Senior Day celebration midway through the third quarter.
Kentucky’s victory and bowl celebration will be short-lived as the Wildcats face off next Saturday at Louisville against the angry Cardinals, whose CFP hopes were dashed in Thursday’s night’s 36-10 thumping at the hands of Houston.
Louisville QB Lamar Jackson is a terrifying matchup for a UK front seven that looked outmatched early by Austin Peay. Still, on this night, the only looking ahead that the Wildcats were doing was to the bowl game that will cap their 2016 season.