Kentucky Football: Dissecting Wildcats’ win over Southern Miss

COLUMBIA, MO - OCTOBER 29: Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops gives a thumbs up to fans after a 35-21 win against the Missouri Tigers in the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium on October 29, 2016 in Columbia, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, MO - OCTOBER 29: Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops gives a thumbs up to fans after a 35-21 win against the Missouri Tigers in the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium on October 29, 2016 in Columbia, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

Mark Stoops and the Kentucky Wildcats waltzed into Hattiesburg on Saturday afternoon and avenged last year’s loss to Southern Miss with a 24-17 victory.

It might have a closer game than the Kentucky football fans wanted, but they went on the road and go the win.

Senior quarterback Stephen Johnson threw for 176 yards and accounted for both of Kentucky’s offensive touchdowns as the Wildcats uncharacteristically leaned on their defense to outlast the Golden Eagles.

Let’s take a look at three significant stats from Kentucky’s victory over Southern Miss.


Total Yards: Kentucky (254) — Southern Miss (364)

The Wildcats’ offense came through with a pretty ho-hum performance on Saturday afternoon. Benny Snell, the team’s primary playmaker, had trouble finding a rhythm as the Wildcats rushed for just 78 yards. Keep in mind that this same team averaged over 230 rushing yard/game a season ago.

Even with the offense out of whack, Johnson made a few really nice throws on Saturday afternoon, particularly, when he was targeting his junior tight end C.J Conrad. Johnson and Conrad connected three times for 97 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown strike that put the Wildcats up 14-3 midway through the second quarter.

Despite getting outgained by 100 yards, Kentucky’s offense was still able to produce enough points to maintain a wire-to-wire lead. The rest of it came down to the defense. More on that later.

Southern Miss rushing yards — (55)

When these two teams met last year, Southern Miss torched the porous Kentucky defense for 262 rushing yards. A big component of that was All-Conference USA first team selection Ito Smith. Smith 173 rushing yards and 40 receiving yards.

Kentucky’s first-year defensive coordinator, Matt House, appeared to make stopping Smith their primary objective. Smith was held to just 37 yards on 16 carries. The Golden Eagles rushing attack got stymied by the Wildcat front seven again and again with Kentucky only yielding 1.4 yards per carry. This Kentucky defense look like they’re out to prove something this year.

Turnovers: Kentucky (1) — Southern Miss (3)

Snell fumbled the ball away inside the Southern Miss five yard line in the first quarter, giving Kentucky its only turnover of the game. Fortunately for Kentucky, Southern Miss wasn’t able to capitalize off of it, however, the same cannot be said for Southern Miss. Kentucky forced 3 fumbles and converted those mistakes into 14 points.


It seemed like Denzil Ware was surgically connected to the football on Saturday afternoon, or maybe Ware just has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Whatever the case might be, Ware enjoyed a career day against the Golden Eagles on Saturday afternoon and provided the Kentucky defense with a handful of key plays.

The junior linebacker recovered two fumbles and returned one of them for a 20-yard touchdown, putting the Wildcats up two scores late in the third quarter. Ware also forced a fumble of his own that was recovered by Southern Miss, but eventually led to a Golden Eagles three-and-out. And to top it all off, Ware also recorded a sack to go along with his three total tackles.


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Kentucky’s offense displayed its fair share of struggles. Their rushing attack proved to be ineffective for most of the game, and the injury to center Bunchy Stallings only made matters worse for their young and inexperienced offensive line. Stephen Johnson’s stats might not jump out to you, but with offensive coordinator Eddie Gran admittedly minimizing the passing game, all Johnson could do was manage the game, and he perfected that role on Saturday afternoon.


Before the season began, I listed the defense as the one single unit that would hold this team back from being able to compete with their divisional counterparts, but based on the defense’s performance yesterday, this team completely flipped the script on me.

One aspect of the defense that I was most impressed with was the immediate improvement in run defense. Last year, nine teams rushed for over 200 yards on the Kentucky defense. On Saturday, the Golden Eagles only rushed for 55 yards. Matt House’s unit looked really solid in his debut as defensive coordinator. If this group continues to play as ferociously as it did on Saturday, the defense could become the strength of the Kentucky football team.