Based on what the oddsmakers in Las Vegas had to say, it would be a cold day in, well, a warm place before Austin Peay would upset Kentucky. The Wildcats were 46-point favorites to beat the Governors. And this is an election year.
Not knowing what the weather conditions were like in the devil’s man-cave, we do know that the Cats and the Govs played through blustery winds and plummeting temperatures that made it feel like the low 20s. So it was a cold day in Lexington and for roughly the first quarter of the game, Austin Peay made the experts in Vegas look like fools.
Then Stephen Johnson arrived, fashionably late. And he became the spark that touched off a 49-13 Kentucky win.
The plan was for the UK quarterback to sit this one out. It was a scheme hatched early in the week; in fact, unbeknownst to the media who follow the football Cats, Johnson had been so wounded during the Tennessee game that it forced the coaches to run more of the Wildcat formation than they had planned that afternoon in Knoxville.
That’s why backup Luke Wright practiced with the first-team offense all week. In his pre-game interview with Tom Leach of the UK radio network, Mark Stoops said Johnson could go, if need be, in an emergency situation.
Austin Peay 13, Kentucky 0, a little more than 16 minutes into the game screamed “emergency.”
That’s because the Wildcats, as every football fan in the Big Blue Nation knew, were again one precious victory away from earning the program’s first bowl bid since 2010. Over the previous two seasons they had had nine different chances to win the one game that would have sent them bowling, but lost every one of them. This would have been number 10.
It’s hard to imagine what would have been more damning: Kentucky blowing another shot at a post-season berth, or the Wildcats losing to a team it was favored to beat by six-and-a-half touchdowns.
Fortunately for Stoops and company, they don’t have to worry about that now, thanks to the backup quarterback who figured to get mainly mop-up minutes this season, until starter Drew Barker went down.
Since then, Johnson has led the Cats to a half-dozen victories – sometimes by handing off, sometimes by throwing the ball and often, by putting himself on the outskirts of the formation so that one of three talented tailbacks could run the ball from the Wildcat formation.
Against the Governors, he did all three, taking over after Wright’s second pass was picked off and returned for the touchdown that put Austin Peay up by two scores.
For much of the game, freshman Benny Snell took the direct snap. He ran the ball only 14 times but carried for 152 yards and two touchdowns.
Johnson’s numbers were modest (five completions in nine attempts for 101 yards) but he threw for two touchdowns, and it would have been three, had normally reliable Jeff Badet, streaking past a hapless APSU safety, not dropped what would have been a 55-yard touchdown pass.
Johnson also brought a calming influence to the huddle, helping to lead the Cats on six consecutive touchdown drives. “I think the guys just really, kind of come around towards me,” he said. “We all kind of bonded and clicked a little bit more.”
The clicked on deep passes – even the one Badet dropped. It was Johnson’s first play of the game, early in the second quarter, after Kentucky had fallen behind by two touchdowns. It was the only drive with Johnson at the controls where the Wildcats failed to score a TD.
Kentucky likely will have a tough time matching that kind of offensive efficiency next week, at Louisville. The Cardinals, no doubt, will still be steaming after the roasting they received at Houston on Thursday night. And for each of the last two seasons, U of L has represented UK’s last shot at a bowl bid-clinching victory, only to send the Wildcats home until spring football began.
Not this time. Win or lose, Kentucky will play in a bowl game for the first time under Mark Stoops. That’s because, while it may not have been a cold day in you-know-where, it was a wintry evening in Commonwealth Stadium. And the Wildcats finally broke through to the post-season with win number six.