They had come 1,508 miles, all the way from Las Cruces, just a short stretch of southwest Texas highway north of El Paso. These Aggies from New Mexico State had blown in off the land all different shades of brown and yellow, to Bluegrass country, threatening to humiliate a team that didn’t think it could sink any lower.
And yet, there were the Kentucky Wildcats, with a resume’ featuring two quarters of Doctor Jekyll football followed by six periods that looked like something off the chalkboard of Mister Hyde, struggling just to keep up Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium.
In the first half the two teams traded haymakers, the Aggies taking advantage of Kentucky turnovers to grab short fields and spin them into touchdowns; the Wildcats, making hay on big plays.
Stanley Williams once again showed why the call him “Boom” with a 63-yard scoring run. C.J. Conrad proved that all the pre-season talk about tight ends wasn’t just, well, talk, starting with a 72-yard catch-and-run, one of three touchdowns he would score on the day.
Tailback Benny Snell apparently said, “I’ll see your three TDs and raise you one.” The tailback from Columbus, Ohio, scored four, taking his place in the UK record book for most touchdowns scored in one game.
And thanks to all of them, the Wildcats now have scratched in the “W” column.
But the man behind the wheel of the Cadillac on this crucial victory was someone who had come from even farther west – Palm Desert, California, home of the College of the Desert.
Stephen Johnson had just finished his junior college career when the call came from Kentucky: We need a quarterback.
The Cats already had their presumed starter in Drew Barker, who had bumped Patrick Towles from his starting role the season prior, sending Towles to the waiver wire (a transfer to Boston College). They saw Johnson, all of 6-foot-3, 180 pounds, as an instant backup – one who needed to add muscle, and fast.
What Johnson saw was a shot at playing time, refusing to accept a through-the-motions chance at the top job and when Barker did become the official starter shortly before summer camp opened, Johnson kept his head down and his interest up. You never know when a backup QB will get his chance.
For the West Coast Kid from Rancho Cucamonga, California, that came early in the first quarter, after Barker took a shot to the back and became the worst kind of injured – leaving in a golf cart.
A slow start quickly gave way to a performance that was solidly efficient, Johnson slinging the ball around the yard 22 times, completing 17, three of them to Conrad for touchdowns.
He also mastered the obvious when he said, “I think it was one of our best days on offense, absolutely.” He was absolutely right.
In the highest-scoring, non-overtime game in UK history, Kentucky amassed 692 yards of total offense, Johnson accounting for 310 in the air and another 51 with feet that carried him away from the kind of trouble that led to Barker to the hospital.
And he showed he had mastered the obvious by saying, “I think I did all right. There are a few things I can change.” He had to be thinking of a precious few times he left the ball with Williams or Snell when he should have tucked it and run, but odds are that he’ll have that riddle solved by the end of the season.
Mark Stoops also needs to call upon his skills to shore up holes in his defense, one big enough to drive a New Mexico cattle truck through. NMSU racked up an even 500 yards in total offense, with more SEC schools ahead.
South Carolina is one of them. It’s fun to imagine Gamecock coaches sitting around, studying the “film” of this one and first, trying to figure out a way to derail an offense that has gone from sad sack to super; and second, preparing for a quarterback who throws tight, catchable passes and can break the pocket at any time.
Johnson was ready when he got his chance, helping his team pile up nearly 700 yards of total offense, sending the challengers from the west back with a great story to tell about the day they rolled up a highlight reel full of big plays and yardage, but left empty-handed, thanks to a skinny kid from the California desert.