Kentucky defense rises to occasion as Cats edge Southern Miss 24-17

Opportunistic Cats force three turnovers in season-opening victory over Golden Eagles.

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Chuck Cook/USA Today

In a season opener which saw its offense sputter, Kentucky leaned on a veteran defense to carry the Wildcats to a 24-17 win over Southern Miss.

Kentucky forced three turnovers, including a big hit by junior safety Darius West against Golden Eagles quarterback Kwadra Griggs late in the third quarter. Junior linebacker/end Denzil Ware scooped up the fumble and raced 20 yards for a touchdown that proved to be the difference.

Ware also had a fumble recovery in the first quarter after a strip sack by fellow linebacker Josh Allen. Cornerback Chris Westry forced a fumble early in the fourth quarter that was recovered by linebacker Courtney Love to thwart another Southern Miss drive.

"That's a thing of beauty to me," UK head coach Mark Stoops said of the defensive-minded victory. "... Stopping the run is all we talked about all year, and we really did a nice job there.

"At the point of attack, we were not getting mushed, and we had a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage."

The Wildcats (1-0) held Southern Miss senior running back Ito Smith to only 37 yards on 16 carries a year after he gouged UK for 173 yards in a 44-35 victory at Commonwealth Stadium. The dangerous Smith did catch nine passes for 78 yards, but he was unable to break any big plays.

The opportunistic defense helped UK overcome a surprisingly inconsistent performance from its offense. The Cats were out-gained 364-254 and managed only 78 yards on the ground. Sophomore running back Benny Snell Jr. was held to 67 yards on 20 carries and fumbled at the Golden Eagles' 4-yard line early in the game.

Kentucky senior quarterback Stephen Johnson did just enough to produce a pair of touchdown drives. He capped one with an 8-yard scoring run of his own and connected on a 23-yard pass with junior tight end C.J. Conrad for the other.

Johnson finished 11 of 20 for 176 yards and a touchdown through the air. He found Conrad three times for 97 yards.

Senior kicker Austin MacGinnis added a 41-yard field goal to cap the Cats' scoring.

Southern Miss (0-1) got 222 yards passing and two touchdowns from Griggs, who came on in relief of starter Keon Howard just before halftime. Korey Robertson caught seven passes for 111 yards and scores of 42 and 26 yards to keep the Golden Eagles in the game.

In this "Rapid Recap" feature, we touch on some of the highlights from the UK victory...

WHAT WE LIKED:

A win is a win is a win. Kentucky started last season behind the 8 ball after dropping its opener against this same Southern Miss squad. It wasn't pretty today, but the Cats won't lose any sleep over this one, especially with how well the defense and punting game performed. Ironically, those were question marks heading into the season while the offensive line and running game were not.

GAME BALL:

Josh Allen, Kentucky - The junior strongside linebacker from New Jersey had five tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble in perhaps the finest all-around performance of his UK career.

BY THE NUMBERS:

3 - Wins by UK quarterback Stephen Johnson in the Cats' last four road games.

5- Punts pinned inside the Southern Miss 20, including two at the 1-yard line by new UK punter Matt Panton, who averaged 42.0 yards per kick.

8 - Tackles for loss by the UK defense.

14 - Points off turnovers by the Cats. Another three came after stopping a Southern Miss fourth-down attempt.

24% - UK held Southern Miss to 4 for 17 on third-down conversions.

87 - Total yards gained by UK in the second half.

QUOTABLE:

"We were very confident and well prepared. We were that way because we feel like we go against the best every day in practice with our running back and O-Line." -- UK linebacker/end Denzil Ware on stopping the Golden Eagles' rushing attack.

UP NEXT:

Kentucky returns home to face Eastern Kentucky on Saturday at newly named Kroger Field. The Colonels are playing longtime rival Western Kentucky today at 7 p.m. ET in their opener. Kickoff for UK and EKU is at noon ET on the SEC Network.


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