HATTIESBURG, Miss. — Kentucky coach Mark Stoops freely acknowledges his team’s offense wasn’t very good on Saturday. If it weren’t for a few well-timed forced fumbles by the defense, the Wildcats could have left Southern Mississippi’s stadium with a very empty feeling.
But that didn’t happen: Kentucky clawed its way to a hard-fought 24-17 road victory over Southern Miss.
With the result he wanted in hand, Stoops wasn’t going to spend much time dwelling on the negative.
“It was a thing of beauty to me,” the fifth-year Kentucky coach said. “I know a lot of people are going to have their own opinions, but I loved it.”
Kentucky was sputtering on offense throughout most of the game. Stephen Johnson threw for a modest 176 yards and a touchdown while Benny Snell was held to just 67 yards rushing.
The Wildcats were clinging to a 17-10 lead in the third quarter when Darius West slammed his helmet into Southern Miss quarterback Kwadra Griggs’ arm, forcing a fumble that Denzil Ware scooped up and ran 20 yards for the touchdown.
Even though he was wide open on his touchdown run, the junior linebacker had just one thing on his mind after he picked up the fumble.
“Run, run, run because somebody’s coming,” Ware said. “I’m not trying to get hit. I don’t want the big hit to happen to me.”
Then with the Wildcats leading 24-17 in the fourth quarter, the Kentucky defense killed another Southern Miss drive when Chris Westry forced a fumble that was recovered by Courtney Love at midfield.
Kentucky’s offense had some success during the first half over the middle of the field on two pass plays from Johnson to tight end C.J. Conrad. The second completion was a 23-yard touchdown that put the Wildcats ahead 14-3 midway through the second quarter.
Conrad finished with three catches for 97 yards.
Johnson completed 11 of 20 passes and had no interceptions. He wasn’t great, but he didn’t have to be. This was a day for the defense.
“As a whole team, we can fight for 60 minutes,” Johnson said. “If the offense isn’t doing too well or the special teams isn’t doing well, the defense can pick us up, which they did today.”
The Southern Miss offense improved significantly in the second half when Griggs replaced Keon Howard at quarterback. Griggs hit Korey Robertson for two touchdowns — one in the third quarter and another in the fourth. The second pulled the Golden Eagles within 24-17 with 12:42 remaining.
The comeback was reminiscent of last season’s opener, when Southern Miss rallied from a 35-10 deficit to beat Kentucky 44-35 . This time, the Golden Eagles couldn’t finish the job.
Griggs finished with 222 yards passing and two touchdowns, all in the second half. Robertson had seven catches for 111 yards and the two touchdowns.
“We felt like we were ready to make a run in the fourth quarter. I could see it in their eyes,” Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson said. “I wish the game had another 15 minutes, but that’s reality. We played tough football, did a good job.”
Kentucky: It wasn’t always pretty, but Kentucky was able to pull ahead in the first half and shake off a Southern Miss rally in the second half to win the season opener. The Wildcats’ offense was just so-so, but the defense was solid. Ware’s fumble recovery for the touchdown was a crucial play.
Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles made this one interesting, but a sputtering offense and a few big mistakes ended their chance to beat Kentucky for a second season in a row. Griggs gave the offense a lift with his play in the second half, making the case that he’s the team’s best option at QB going forward.
Kentucky: The Wildcats host Eastern Kentucky next Saturday.
Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles host Southern next Saturday.