LEXINGTON, Ky. — Despite the loss of its starting quarterback and with the help of two backups, Kentucky rolled in the second half and picked up its first win, 62-42 over New Mexico State on Saturday.
Benjamin Snell Jr. ran for four touchdowns and Stephen Johnson added three touchdown passes to lead the Wildcats to a victory that didn’t come easily — it was 35-all at halftime — for Kentucky (1-2), which lost its first two games to open the season for the first time in 20 years. The Wildcats outscored New Mexico State 27-7 in the second half to avoid their third straight loss.
Drew Barker started at quarterback for Kentucky but left the game and did not return because of what was announced as a right leg injury after he threw an interception on the first series. Wildcats coach Mark Stoops said afterward that Barker sustained a back injury.
After a shaky start, Johnson settled down in Barker’s absence to steer the Wildcats in front of 49,669 fans, the smallest in Stoops’ four-year tenure.
Johnson was 17 of 22 passing for 310 yards, and added 51 yards rushing. Snell, a third-string freshman, finished with 136 yards and tied a school record for rushing TDs. Stanley “Boom” Williams added 181 yards rushing on 18 carries and a TD.
Johnson threw a 72-yard scoring strike to C.J. Conrad in the first quarter. Conrad finished with five catches for 133 yards and three scores.
“It feels great and it feels phenomenal,” Johnson said. “At this level and in the Southeastern Conference, every game is a big game.”
Stoops lauded the play of Johnson, who relieved Barker and led Kentucky to its only touchdown in a 45-7 loss at Florida last Saturday.
“It was good to see Stephen come in and play like that,” 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.”
Stoops wasn’t surprised by Snell’s performance and said he has competed at a high level since arriving on campus this fall. “He plays much more mature than a true freshman,” the coach said. “That’s really good to see.”
New Mexico State’s (1-2) Tyler Rogers was 16 of 33 for 246 yards passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also ran for two scores. Johnathan Boone had two receptions, both first-quarter TDs, for the Aggies.
With the Wildcats leading 55-42 early in the fourth quarter, Rogers led a 10-play, 66-yard drive to the Kentucky 9 before throwing an interception to Derrick Baity in the end zone. Charles Walker later scored on a 65-yard punt return to cap the Wildcats’ scoring.
KENTUCKY: Stoops, a former defensive coordinator at Florida State, became more involved in his team’s defensive game plan last week after the Wildcats gave up 1,084 yards in the first two games. But the problems continued for Kentucky, which surrendered 500 yards to the Aggies. On the flip side, the Wildcats finished with a season-high 692 yards of offense.
“I was happy with the way our team responded,” Stoops said. “A victory is a victory. We’re 1-2 and we have a chance to get to .500 next week. We’ll take a victory any way we can. We’re going to learn from it and get better.”
Stoops said Barker was taken to a nearby hospital but didn’t know the extent of his injury.
NEW MEXICO STATE: The Aggies, coming off a 32-31 victory over New Mexico, fell to 0-20 against SEC opponents. Coach Doug Martin, a former Kentucky quarterback and graduate assistant, is now 0-2 against his former team.
KENTUCKY: The Wildcats return to conference play and host South Carolina on Saturday.
NEW MEXICO STATE: The Aggies open their Sun Belt schedule at Troy on Saturday in the conference opener for both teams. The Trojans are coached by former Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown.
AP College Football: collegefootball.ap.org