‘Cats quarterback Stephen Johnson was the right play caller at the right time in win over Tennessee

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Stephen Johnson may not be considered the top quarterback in the Southeastern Conference and isn’t in the running for the Heisman Trophy, but he’s the right signal caller at the right time for Kentucky.

Although the junior college transfer hasn’t been perfect during the past two seasons, he has been instrumental in leading the Wildcats to what will be back-to-back postseason appearances. Johnson pulled off his latest magic Saturday night when he did a flying leap into the end zone with 33 seconds remaining to send the Wildcats to a 29-26 victory over rival Tennessee.

Stephen Johnson’s TD late in the fourth quarter gave the Wildcats a 29-26 win over Tennessee Saturday night (UK Athletics Photo)

“Unbelievable,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “He did a fantastic job after getting banged up a little bit. He’s one of the toughest kids I’ve been able to coach in my life.”

It took guts and determination for Johnson to even consider making the courageous jump after he left during the third quarter because of an undisclosed shoulder injury. After it was determined Johnson’s left shoulder wasn’t serious, he took some ibuprofen and shook off the soreness to lead Kentucky’s offense to a victory march downfield in the final quarter.

“He’s a dog,” Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen said. “Stephen is a dog. For him to go down, come back and win us the game… He’s a dog and I respect him for that. We’re an image of him. I can tell you that. For him to leave, come back, drive down the field and then score a touchdown… He just has it in him. That’s what we see and that encouraged us on the defensive end. We had to make big stops for him and for history.”

Denzil Ware wasn’t surprised by Johnson’s late heroics and said the senior is a total team leader.

“It let me know he’s a warrior,” Ware said. “Stephen had a rough life. He overcame a lot of things to get to where he’s at now. I’ve seen him come from the bottom to the top. I see him lay it out on the line. That pushes other guys on the team, that pushes people out on the streets, that motivates other people just to see the things he overcame. He’s a great role model, he’s a great leader on this team and at the end of the day he’s just a tough guy. I see him run and hit up with linebackers, knowing he doesn’t have a chance, he just lays it all out on the line and you can’t ask for anything better than that.”

Even when he missed a series and a half in the third quarter, Johnson kept itching to get back into the contest and was determined to make a sacrifice for the well being of the team, a point of emphasis in the team’s Gameday chapel devotional.

“I definitely was going to continue playing this game,” he said. “I knew I had to do what I had to do to win this game.”

Johnson’s track record of success is well-documented. A year ago, he led the Wildcats to a rare victory over Mississippi State and a road win at rival Louisville. He took over the leadership role after starter Drew Barker went down with a back injury during the third game and has been Kentucky’s starting quarterback ever since.

Prior to the team’s final drive, Kentucky running back Benny Snell said the Wildcats depended on past experiences in close games to carry them through, especially with Johnson calling the signals under center.

“We’ve been in this situation before,” Snell said. “We know what we can do. Everybody just stayed calm and we went out there and gave it all we had.”

Like the rest of his teammates, Snell praised Johnson’s ability to overcome adversity and lead the team to victory for the sixth time in eight tries this season.

“Stephen is a fighter,” he said. “He’s just a tough guy. It was a run play, he made the right read, he pulled it, sacrificed his body, jumped in there and got an amazing touchdown. I’m glad that he was able to execute.”

So was the rest of Big Blue Nation.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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