(Wildcats honor Nate Northington on 50th anniversary of his becoming first African-American player SEC football history)
Kentucky Offensive Line: “Hey, defense – we owe you one.”
Kentucky Defense: “Yeah you do.”
If I had told you back in August that, on more than one occasion, the UK defense would have to bail out the offense this year, you probably would have handed me a specimen jar and sent me toward the nearest rest room. Anyone who thought they saw that coming had to be on something, right?
But that’s been a recurring theme this college football season, never so apparent than it was on a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon in Lexington.
The Wildcats beat Eastern Michigan, 24-20, despite the fact that the Eagles out-gained them, threw for more yards and made more first downs. They did it because, with the game there for the taking, the Kentucky defense took it by terrorizing EMU quarterback Brogan Roback, who’d thrown for nearly 800 yards coming into the game.
A unit that at times was Kentucky’s Achilles heel last season was the team’s steady hand on Saturday, sacking Roback five times, picking him off twice, recovering a fumble and making seven tackles-for-loss.
The Cats did score three touchdowns against a nails-tough EMU defense that had allowed only two in the Eagles’ first three games, including a win over power-5 conference opponent Rutgers.
But it was clear that the offensive line, such a beacon of sunshine last season, is puttering around in the dark right now.
Some of it is understandable. John Toth, one of the best centers ever to look through a facemask for the Wildcats, graduated and moved on. But then senior left tackle Cole Mosier went down in summer camp.
Offensive line coach John Schlarman, who two years ago held his O-line together with spit and bailing wire, started looking for answers, shuffling players in and out of the lineup, as well as in and out of various positions. Guards became tackles. Tackles became guards. A center and guard swapped positions, then swapped back.
Thankfully on this day, there were no soaring snaps, in part because redshirt freshman center Drake Jackson saw some action, bringing a bit more stability to the position.
But the line, which was recognized last year as one of the best in the SEC, if not the country, struggled to break open channels wide enough to spring the bullish Benny Snell and the speedy Sihiem King. Kentucky would rush for only 98 yards but gave back 45 in sacks and losses, for a net of only 53 yards.
And it gave up five sacks, at times allowing the Eagles’ to turn quarterback Stephen Johnson into a human piñata. Johnson took a shot from the blind side on the game’s first play from scrimmage, coughing up a fumble that the Eagles turned into a touchdown on the very next play – one of the few mistakes the UK defense would make.
The Cats answered immediately and set about grinding out a victory, thanks to both defense and special teams. A fumble recovery by the punt return team set up a UK field goal. And a blocked punt by the Wildcats led to Kentucky’s third and final touchdown.
That gave the Wildcats a 24-14 lead with 11:56 left to play. Defense went to work, forcing an EMU three/out. After the Kentucky offense did the same, the Cats shorted out an Eastern Michigan drive at the UK 25, senior Kendall Randolph picking a fine time to make his first career interception.
Backed up on their own 10, the Cats couldn’t manage a first down and had to give it back to the Eagles, who drove to their only TD of the half.
And then the football gods smiled, ever so slightly, on the Wildcats. EMU missed the extra point, meaning the Eagles, now down 24-20, could not send the game to overtime with a field goal. They would have to make it all the way to the end zone to avoid a loss.
UK’s offense, once again, went three/out for the fifth time in the second half. Eastern Michigan moved from its 12 to the Kentucky 47, Roback lofting a Hail-Mary pass to the end zone as time expired, the Wildcats’ Mike Edwards picking it off.
Exhale, Big Blue Nation. Your team is 4-1. But your O-line needs some time to heal up and improve, with a return to Southeastern Conference play (Missouri) coming up next Saturday.
And… it needs to find someplace nice to take the UK defenders for dinner. It definitely owes them that.