Each week Cats Illustrated hands out grades to each position unit following Kentucky's latest game.
As you might expect the grades are improved with the Cats beating the Gamecocks 23-13.
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INSTANT ANALYSIS: One tough team
Things didn't start well for Stephen Johnson. After a nice completion to C.J. Conrad to start the game his next pass to the tight end, just after that, was picked off putting the Gamecocks in UK territory with a chance to go up two scores. But Johnson more than found his footing the rest of the way, executing timing routes with receivers and involving tight ends and Sihiem King in the passing game as well. He also ripped off a huge run on a third down at the end of the game to drive the nail in the coffin and give Kentucky a two possession lead with Austin MacGinnis' field goal with under two minutes to play. Johnson was calm, cool and collected, but he wasn't just a game manager. He was mostly accurate (16 of 25) and his 169 yards with a pick don't tell the whole story. He was exactly who Kentucky needed him to be as he so often is.
Benny Snell was a 32-carry workhorse and while he only averaged 3.2 yards per, shouldering that heavy load allowed Kentucky to control the clock. He didn't make any mistakes (i.e. turnovers or huge negative yardage plays) and he was a consistent between the tackles runner who ate up clock and helped keep Kentucky's defense fresh. Sihiem King had a big 18-yard reception on a pivotal third down play in the first half. The Wildcat formation still hasn't been too pretty but it also had a couple of brighter moments.
The unit appeared to block well as a group and while their numbers aren't overly impressive it was by far their best performance of the year. Garrett Johnson led the way with four catches for 41 yards on five targets but that doesn't tell the whole story, as he fought and scrapped for extra yards and helped keep the chains moving. Tavin Richardson had a couple of big catches to help open up the field and move the ball, and both Kayaune Ross and Charles Walker chipped in with a pair of catches each, too. This group will never put up outrageous numbers but they played as well as they needed to. For a group with a lot to prove, this was a big day for them.
The blocking was there, as it almost always will be with C.J. Conrad, and the Cats' starter and All-SEC candidate had two catches for 36 yards. Justin Rigg got his first catch (six yards) and Greg Hart had a 3-yard catch but it was a big one to help move the chains deep in South Carolina territory on third down after Johnson dropped a pass from Snell in the Wildcat.
It seemed like every other play an offensive lineman was going down but this group kept it together, allowed the offense to rush for 184 yards on 47 carries (two touchdowns) and only allowed one sack and four tackles for loss. There are still penalties and missed assignments, and there was one bad snap that led to a turnover. So there's room for improvement, still, but it was a step forward for the guys up front.
South Carolina rushed for 54 yards on 20 carries (2.7) and didn't score on the ground. While Kentucky had two sacks, the line was often rushing without a heavy blitz assisting in the second half, as Mark Stoops and Matt House opted to drop a lot of guys into coverage to prevent big plays. The defensive line was stout, taking up blockers and freeing up linebackers and safeties to make plays in and around the box whenever the ball was there. They played their assignments and also contained Bentley well. Nobody put up huge numbers (Adrian Middleton and Naquez Pringle each had two tackles), but make no mistake about it, Derrick LeBlanc's unit made a major statement tonight. South Carolina could not run the ball in short yardage situations and eventually abandoned the run altogether.
No Jordan Jones? No problem, at least for one game. Thank Eli Brown for that. The redshirt sophomore linebacker made plays all night until he was injured and Jamar Watson promptly stepped in and made a huge fourth down stop at the goal line. Brown finished with six tackles and one for loss. Courtney Love was his usual active self (six tackles, one PBU), Denzil Ware shared a sack and another TFL, and Josh Allen added a sack, TFL and hurry to his season total as he continues to establish himself as a premier player in the SEC. Kentucky's speed at the position was more impressive than it has been in a very long time with players across the unit closing on the ball very fast and eliminating scramble yards and yards after the catch. They also played very physical football.
Ignore Bentley's numbers. Yes, he was 24/36 for 304 yards and two touchdowns. But Kentucky allowed Bentley to have the underneath stuff in the second half, betting that if they didn't let Deebo Samuel beat them (he almost did early) and they forced the Gamecocks to work down the field, they could run out the clock or simply stifle USC on most possessions. The numbers don't tell the whole story. Besides, the group picked off two passes (Derrick Baity, Mike Edwards, who combined for 15 tackles to lead the team). Chris Westry dealt with some cramping but had his best half of the season in the first two quarters. Kendall Randolph and Jordan Griffin also had solid games. Samuel did beat Baity without safety help (blown assignment?) on the first play from scrimmage and Lonnie Johnson gave up a big play later but the secondary executed the game plan well for the most part.
What a time to come up with a big special teams performance. Austin MacGinnis put the ball right where it needed to be on kickoffs against a team with Deebo Samuel. South Carolina had only 21 kickoff return yards and Kentucky didn't give up great field position kicking away from Samuel, either. Matt Panton averaged 44.5 yards per punt with one over 50 and another inside the 20. And MacGinnis was true on field goals.
Kentucky came in with a game plan to ground, pound, execute the passing game its comfortable with, and they didn't let early momentum throw them off from that. The new coaching staff additions (Dean Hood, LeBlanc) made their presence felt and tonight was a huge win for Mark Stoops, who is now 4-0 against South Carolina.