UK can't avoid post-Florida hangover but leans on strong defensive effort, including five quarterback sacks, to survive challenge from MAC foe.
Jeff Drummond/Cats Illustrated
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Kentucky insisted all week that its heartbreaking loss to Florida would not affect Saturday's non-conference matchup with Eastern Michigan.
The hangover proved to be too potent.
Mark Stoops' squad had to sweat out a "Hail Mary" pass as time expired to escape with a 24-20 win over the Eagles at Kroger Field.
UK improved to 4-1 on the season despite turning the ball over on its first snap of the game, allowing a touchdown on Eastern Michigan's first play from scrimmage, getting its quarterback sacked five times, and amassing only 228 yards of total offense.
"Well, the good news is we got the victory," Stoops said. "That didn't feel very good through the whole game. I was not very comfortable because we just didn't play our best.
"There's no excuses. We just need to be better than that."
The Wildcats leaned on a solid defensive performance to grind out the win. Eastern Michigan (2-2, 0-1 MAC) was held to 13 net yards rushing and a 4-for-15 line on third-down conversions thanks to a UK defense that recorded five sacks.
"I thought rush defense again was very good," Stoops said. "We said all week how well they threw the football, and they do. I thought we were in really good position and had pretty good coverage for the most part. Came up with some big sacks and had an opportunity for a few more pressures. And some things we missed, we were a little late on, but overall they played pretty solid."
The Kentucky offense got just enough to squeak by, including an 18-of-27 passing effort for 175 yards and two touchdowns by Stephen Johnson. He connected with tight end Greg Hart and wide receiver Tavin Richardson for first-half scoring strikes.
Benny Snell, who had 75 yards rushing on 21 carries, scored the third UK touchdown on a 12-yard run in the fourth quarter. That cushioning score was set up by a blocked punt by the Cats' Josh Paschal.
Austin MacGinnis added a 39-yard field goal after missing a pair of 53-yard attempts.
Eastern Michigan's Brogan Roback completed 26 of 43 passes for 256 yards and a touchdown to lead the Eagles.
"We thought in the very beginning that both teams had very disappointed losses last week and the team that was going to be able to respond was going to win the football game, and they were a little better than us today," EMU head coach Chris Creighton said. "I thought our defense played phenomenal from start to finish.”
In this Cats Illustrated "Rapid Recap" section, we touch on some quick-hitters from the UK victory...
WHAT WE LIKED:
When the clock reached 00:00 and the scoreboard read KENTUCKY 24, EASTERN MICHIGAN 20. That's about all you can say with this one. The Cats found a way to avoid a disastrous loss. On to the next one.
Josh Allen, Kentucky - The junior outside linebacker was in on two sacks, pushing his season total to 5.5, among his seven tackles. He was a disruptive force on many other plays. The 5.5 sacks through five games are the best figure for a UK player since Marlon McCree in the 2000 season.
BY THE NUMBERS:
1st - Career touchdown catches for UK's Greg Hart and Tavin Richardson, and career sack for Kengera Daniel. It was also the first meeting the two programs, who are scheduled to play again at EMU in 2019.
+7 - Turnover margin for Cats this season.
10 - Tackles for loss by the EMU defense.
13 - Lowest rushing yards by an FBS opponent since Vanderbilt had -29 yards in 1996.
11-4 - UK's record in the last 15 regular-season games, the best span since 1977-78 when the Wildcats were 11-3-1 over that span.
2010 - The last time UK held five straight opponents to 28 points or less in one season.
"I don't want to believe that, but certainly I don't think we played our best football today... The good news is we won because, if you watch college football, with these guys with what they have to do in their life and the way they play and the way they strain and what they have to do, you're not going to play your best for 12 games. And good football teams win when they don't play their best." - UK head coach Mark Stoops on playing to the level of competition.
Kentucky returns to Kroger Field next week to face SEC East rival Missouri. The Tigers (1-3, 0-2 SEC) had an open date today.