Backup QB Johnson rallies UK in win over New Mexico State

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson walking off the field after the victory against New Mexico State at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky. on Saturday, September 17, 2016. Photo by Josh Mott | Staff.

Anthony Crawford

For the first time this season, the UK offense showed what it was capable of when it plays a full four quarters, and with nearly 700 yards of proof in the 62-42 win over the New Mexico State Aggies, it showed that it might be able to carry this team the rest of the season.

The Cats finished with 692 yards of total offense, the most ever in a home game, thanks to the balance of two 100-yard rushers and one 100-yard receiver. But in true UK football fashion, the only reason the offense looked so open was because the dual-threat backup quarterback was forced to play.

The offense didn’t miss a step when starting quarterback Drew Barker went down with a back injury after the third play of the game, but instead gained a few because of backup Stephen Johnson. The junior transfer only tacked on 51 yards on the ground, but those were enough to keep the New Mexico State defense guessing while he threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns — both were career-highs.

Johnson saw some time in the blowout loss in Gainesville, Fla., but he really got to show what he could fully add to the team in the win Saturday. 

“He’s not fazed. He was excited,” UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said about Johnson. “He embraced the opportunity and really even at Florida he was like that. You get that out of the next guy that’s up.”

The poise that Johnson showed in the read option was all the Cats needed to ride to one of their more impressive offensive showings, and that was exactly what the Cats needed after getting punched in the face early by the Aggies.

Not to put any unfair blame on Barker, but his last play was an interception that set up New Mexico State’s first score of the game, thus creating an uphill battle for UK from then on.

With Johnson under center, the Cats found their footing on offense and stayed in control for the full game, dropping the bad habit of dishing out underwhelming second halves.

“There is a lot of great guys here, so we just knew that we could come out here and actually do what we wanted with the ball,” Johnson said. “So those guys definitely rallied around each other and around myself.”

After the game, Johnson credited the great performance to just letting the game come to him and getting the ball to the playmakers on the team, but what was most impressive is that he might have awakened some sleeping giants on UK’s roster.

Before coming into the game, sophomore tight end C.J. Conrad had one reception for five yards on the season. During the game Saturday, he became Johnson’s go-to option nearly matching his career total of receiving yards of 154 yards, raking in five catches for 133 yards and three touchdowns against the Aggies.

Johnson also did a good job of jumpstarting senior wide receiver Ryan Timmons’ season, as he caught his first pass of the season en route to totals of four catches for 42 yards.

And the opening up of the offense didn’t stop with just the passing game as the read option managed by Johnson played a big part in Stanley “Boom” Williams and Benny Snell Jr. having big days on the ground.

The exact status of Barker is unknown and it would be unfair to make any definite decision right now, but a quarterback battle should be underway.

What Johnson did for the offense should not be understated, and may be the answer that UK needed to its troubles on offense. But at the very least it led to the Cats coming out with a much-needed victory and led the rally that it needed.

“It’s hard when you just constantly have to motivate yourself because we’re not winning, we’re not seeing results,” Conrad said. “It’s nice to see results. The only thing that was going to help this team was a win and now we have the good feeling in our mouth and hopefully, this motivates us more.”