Johnson, Snell combine to spark Kentucky’s second half comeback in 27-16 win over Eastern Kentucky

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By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

The last time Kentucky played Eastern Kentucky, it took overtime and the fourth-largest comeback in school history for the Wildcats to fend off the Colonels. This time, Kentucky had to rally, but no extra period was needed.

The Wildcats (2-0) received a scare from the Colonels and trailed 13-3 in the second quarter before outscoring Eastern 24-3 the remainder of the contest for a 27-16 triumph in the team’s home opener Saturday at Kroger Field.

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson scores on a 21-yard run in the fourth quarter of a 27-16 win over Eastern Kentucky Saturday at Kroger Field. Johnson threw for 224 yards and a touchdown. (UK Athletics Photo)

“It feels good to be 2-0,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “We definitely know we have a lot of work to do. I want to give EKU a lot of credit, they played a very good football game. We knew all week that it would be a tough game. I know a lot of people have their own opinions, but we watched them last week against Western (Kentucky). I believe our players knew that it would be a tough, hard-fought game and it was. I give them a lot of credit and they did a lot to good things. I give our team credit for doing what they have to do to win the game.”

Kentucky’s offense, which struggled in a season-opening 24-17 victory over Southern Mississippi last week, had many of the same issues against Eastern, but thanks to late heroics by quarterback Stephen Johnson and running back Benny Snell, the Wildcats overcame the Colonels’ upset bid.

Johnson completed 15-of-22 passes for 224 yards and one touchdown to lead the Wildcats. Johnson’s biggest target was senior receiver Blake Bone, who hauled in a career-high three passes for 93 yards. Johnson’s 21-yard touchdown run on a busted play with 10:09 remaining in the fourth quarter gave the Wildcats a 24-16 advantage and gave Kentucky the cushion it desperately needed at the time.

Overall, the Wildcats collected 436 yards, including 207 yards rushing. Sihiem King followed Snell with 61 yards, while Johnson contributed with 48 yards on six carries.

Snell rushed for 103 yards on 19 attempts, with a bulk of that yardage coming in the second half. Snell gained 98 yards in the final two quarters, after managing just five yards on three totes in the opening two quarters. Snell played sparingly in the first half because of bruised ribs, but came back and carried the load for the Wildcats in the second half.

“I don’t like being out and that was a team we shouldn’t lose to,” Snell said. “That second half I knew my team needed me and I had to get (the game) in. It was frustrating (being) behind, but football is a long game.”

Eastern signal caller Tim Boyle completed 24-of-35 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown. Boyle, a University of Connecticut transfer, threw for 320 yards in the team’s season-opening 31-17 loss at Western Kentucky last week. The Colonels fell to 0-2 on the season following the loss.

Kentucky’s defensive unit forced two turnovers and Mike Edwards’ interception in the final quarter helped seal the deal. Darius West paced Kentucky with 11 tackles as the Wildcats limited the Colonels to just 62 yards rushing.

“We were just running to the ball to stop the run,” West said. “We have a lot of confidence to stop the run.”

Heroes Day: Kentucky honored active and reserve military members of the military, along with first responders prior to kickoff. A football-sized flag was unveiled during the national anthem.

Barker makes appearance: Drew Barker, who missed 10 games because of a back injury last year, made his first appearance of the season on UK’s third series of the game in the second quarter. Barker took his first hit after being sacked for a 7-yard loss on third down. Barker played two series’ — both in the second quarter — and was sacked twice for a loss of 15 yards. Barker completed one of two passes for five yards.

“We said that we were going to play him on the third series no matter what,” Stoops said. “We did. We have to. You know, said the same thing last year when Stephen [Johnson] was a backup. You’re one play away from playing him. Sure enough, Stephen was playing.”

Perfect: The Wildcats remained perfect against the Colonels (5-0) and improved to 10-0 against teams from the Ohio Valley Conference. Three of the five games between the two neighboring schools have resulted in blowouts.

Bowden ejected: Kentucky freshman Lynn Bowden took the opening kickoff and returned it 30 yards, the longest of his career. The return by Bowden set up a 39-yard field goal by Austin McGinnis to give Kentucky a 3-0 lead with 10:31 remaining in the opening frame. Bowden was disqualified for targeting on UK’s second series with 5:43 left in the opening half. Bowden finished with 51 return yards.

“It was nothing malicious,” Stoops said. “He really tried to make a good block. He did make some contact. There wasn’t a lot. It wasn’t a brutal hit or anything like that. But if you make any contact with head-to-head, they’re going to call that on an unprotected player.”

Mini reunion: Former Eastern Kentucky coach Dean Hood got the opportunity to meet some members of his former team following the contest. Hood coached at Eastern from 2008-15 and is now special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach at Kentucky. Until the final buzzer, it was all business for Hood.

“When the game was over and I got to see (all those kids) I recruited, it was kind of emotional,” Hood said. “It really was short, but I got to hug them and tell them I missed them and they did a good job.”

Gametracker: Kentucky at South Carolina, 7:30 p.m. Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. He can be reached at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or @keithtaylor21.

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