LOUISVILLE — On this sideline was the Heisman Trophy candidate, the quarterback who’d accounted for more than 3,100 yards and 28 touchdowns on the season, leading his team to victories from Day One, so many that they had entered the national championship conversation.
On that sideline was a quarterback who had been slated to spend the season carrying a clipboard, maybe sporting a headset or a baseball cap. Or both. Definitely not a helmet, at least for most of the minutes this season.
Then, for Stephen Johnson, the world changed. And now it includes a 41-38, upset victory over 11th-ranked Louisville and Lamar Jackson.
The U of L QB is still the Heisman front-runner in most corners (including this one), but he’s also the guy who fumbled the ball, deep in the red zone, with 1:45 left in a 38-38 game.
Jackson was battling for hero yards when none were needed. The Cardinals were well within field goal range. All they had to do was manage the clock, kick it and go home with a surprisingly difficult win over Kentucky.
But the ball bounced and squirted and wound up in a dog pile. At the bottom was Courtney Love, who emerged from the scrum with the football and a chance for his team, albeit slim. The Wildcats were 89 yards from the end zone.
No problem for the poker-faced QB who’s become known for his even-keeled, California cool.
“I think it helps a lot,” Johnson would say later, in a raucous UK locker room. “As a quarterback, you can’t get too high or too low. You have to stay even throughout the game.”
Call him Even Stephen. He calmly directed the Cats on a drive that ended at the U of L 29-yard line, with kicker Austin MacGinnis punching through his second game-winning field goal of the season.
His previous one came on the final play of the game, so his teammates mobbed him after his game-winner over Mississippi State. But on this day, the Cards still had a kick return to negotiate, and one more play from scrimmage. The mob scene had to wait.
Once Jackson’s final pass settled into the arms of UK safety Mike Edwards, it was time. The Wildcats stormed the field, celebrating a victory they had fashioned as four-touchdown underdogs – minus their steamrolling run game, which Louisville had so adroitly shut down.
But when the tackle box is stuffed with defenders, that means the middle of the field is open, and Kentucky pounced.
“Watching film earlier in the week,” Johnson said, “we knew some of the fly sweep stuff we did would open up some of the plays deep down the field.”
Open? Time and again, Johnson would look downfield and see one of his teammates, streaking past Cardinal DBs.
“It’s a little bit nerve wracking, knowing how fast they are,” Johnson said of his targets. “I can’t let them get too far downfield or they’ll outrun my arm.”
That might have happened, maybe once. Here’s what else happened: 338 passing yards and three touchdowns: the first, a 75-yarder to Garrett Johnson on Kentucky’s first play from scrimmage. The next, a 63-yarder to Johnson again, one that pulled the Wildcats back to within 24-21 just before halftime.
And for his finale: a 35-yard, picture-perfect lob to Dorian Baker in the corner of the end zone, which gave Kentucky a 38-31 lead less than a minute into the fourth quarter.
All of this from a guy who was a last-minute recruiting addition, brought in from the junior college ranks to be the backup for Drew Barker, the big-armed slinger destined to trigger a brand-new UK offense and fill the air with footballs across the Southeastern Conference.
But injuries happen. Football is a rough game and it sent Barker to the sidelines, in favor of a guy who couldn’t hold onto the starting job at Grambling, which is why he ended up at the College of the Desert. That’s where Kentucky QB coach Darrin Hinshaw spotted him.
Johnson signed with the Wildcats and nine months later, found himself leading his team to one of the biggest upsets in the history of the program, in a game that became something of a track meet.
“Basically,” said Johnson, “what I told the offense was, we’re gonna have to score points. We might have to match what they do.”
Which they did, and then some. And once again, the 6-foot-2, 183-lb. Johnson took a physical pounding. And that’s okay with him.
“I love this game,” he said. “I love the hits a little bit, in a weird way. I have this mentality that I bend, but I don’t break — to go out there and play as hard as I can. Be smart. Just go out there and win a game and not play scared, or chicken.”
Saturday, he played like a Wildcat. And while his counterpart should end up with the most coveted trophy in all of college football, it is Johnson and his teammates who now own the hardware that goes to the winner of UK vs. U of L.
It was enough to make even a poker-faced quarterback smile.