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Keith Taylor: Backup QB Johnson steps in pocket, steers Kentucky to first win of season

After leading Kentucky to its first victory of the season, Stephen Johnson couldn’t sit still. He was back on his feet.

As he took questions from reporters following a 62-42 win over New Mexico State Saturday, Johnson asked if he could stand instead of sitting in a chair. From that point on, the backup quarterback refused to look ahead to a possible quarterback controversy but dwelled on his career performance, which came during a time of desperation for the Wildcats.

UK quarterback Stephen Johnson leaps for an extra yard in a win over New Mexico State Saturday (Bill Thiry Photo)

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson leaps for an extra yard in a win over New Mexico State Saturday (Bill Thiry Photo)

Three plays into the third game of the season, Johnson was summoned to the field after starter Drew Barker left the field because of a back injury. Despite a shaky start, Johnson found a groove and helped Kentucky overcome the gritty Aggies and avoid a 0-3 start for the first time in more than three decades.

With his mother, father, brother and sister looking on, Johnson, a junior college transfer, threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns. Johnson admitted he was nervous, but calmed down after his first series.

“Once you hit the field, all of it (the jitters) go away,” he said.

Johnson’s outing was a far cry from last week’s Southeastern Conference washout at Florida when he took over for Barker in the second half and led the Wildcats to their lone touchdown in a 45-7 setback to the Gators in Gainesville.

“It was good to see Stephen come in and play like that,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “To see him play like he did was really good. I thought he calmed down and made some good decisions – early on it was a little rough. He settled in and he has a lot of poise.”

Unlike his performance against the Gators, it didn’t take long for Johnson to get into a rhythm. Johnson was a steady force for an offense that struggled for six quarters following a 35-point outburst in a season-opening loss to Southern Mississippi.

“I just let the game come to me,” Johnson said. “I just let my teammates do what they can do.”

New Mexico State coach Doug Martin wasn’t surprised by Johnson’s performance or his entrance into the contest in the first quarter.

“We kind of anticipated that,” said Martin, a former UK quarterback, and graduate assistant. “We thought that’s the way they would go eventually, so we worked on that all week.”

Most of Johnson’s strikes were to tight end C.J. Conrad, who hauled in five passes for a team-high 133 yards. Johnson added another dimension to the ground attack and rushed for 51 yards.

Paced by Johnson, Kentucky’s offense finished with a season-high 692 yards, almost double the output the Wildcats produced in their first two games of the season. Kentucky also collected 28 first downs and was a perfect 6-6 in the red zone.

“As an offense, we did a phenomenal job to be able to move the ball, run the ball and pass the ball efficiently,” Johnson said. “I think it was one of our best days on offense, absolutely.”

To go along with Johnson’s outing, Stanley “Boom” Williams and Benny Snell Jr. produced an adequate mix of offense on the ground, combining for 317 yards and five touchdowns. Snell’s four scores tied a school record for most rushing touchdowns in a game.

“Benny Snell and Boom Williams did a phenomenal job,” Johnson said. “Being able to get those yards after hits, they continued to drive and get first downs. It was phenomenal.”

Under other circumstances, it would be understandable to expect a quarterback change for the Wildcats, but Stoops doesn’t want to make a hasty decision, while Johnson said he remains a team player.

“I don’t know what the situation is (with Barker’s injury),” Stoops said. “I’m not going to make a decision like that right now. Obviously, I have no idea (about Barker). He’s hurt (and) he has an injured back.”

For now, Stoops and Johnson aren’t looking ahead, but savoring the team’s first victory of the season.

Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at keith.taylor@kyforward.com or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter

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