One year ago following its season opener, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops said fans deserved better.
Those fans had just watched a 25-point lead for the Wildcats turn into a 44-35 Southern Miss victory in Lexington.
Stoops and Kentucky are hoping for a better start to the season this Saturday as the Wildcats travel to Hattiesburg, Miss., for the first time in school history.
“We know it’s gonna be a real challenge going on the road playing them, a team that won a bowl game a year ago, won seven games,” Stoops said. “We’ll have our hands full. We have great respect for Southern Miss.”
Stoops, who is entering his fifth year at UK, said he isn’t looking back at last year’s game as motivation despite the tough loss. He said the team has to learn from the mistakes a year ago though.
Southern Miss more than doubled Kentucky on first downs, offensive plays and time of possession last year. The Golden Eagles had 32 first downs to the Wildcats 14, 96 plays to 50 and had the ball for 40 minutes.
However, Kentucky is a very different team entering this game compared to last year, according to Stoops. And he’s right.
Two of the Wildcats biggest playmakers down the stretch didn’t play against Southern Miss in quarterback Stephen Johnson and running back Benny Snell.
Johnson started nine games for Kentucky last season after Drew Barker was injured. He threw for more than 2,000 yards and 13 touchdowns. Johnson also carried the ball 97 times for 327 yards and three scores.
Snell earned All-SEC Freshman honors last season after rushing 1,091 yards and 13 touchdowns, averaging 5.9 yards per carry. The 1,091 rushing yards is a school record for most ever by a freshman, breaking Moe Williams’s record of 928 yards set in 1993.
“Kentucky is a good football team,” said Southern Miss head coach Jay Hopson. “They've got playmakers on offensive. The quarterback did a good job for them. They're a team that runs well and so, certainly, that caught my eye last year. We know we have a good football team coming into town.”
Barker could play
While an injury caused Barker to miss the final nine games last year and allowed Johnson to take the starting quarterback spot, Stoops hopes to get the junior on the field.
“I think he deserves an opportunity and we’ll see where it goes,” Stoops said. “That’s very difficult at that position but we have a lot of trust in Drew. We absolutely would love to get him in this game.”
Barker had an excellent first half in the opener last year against Southern Miss throwing for 287 yards and four touchdowns. He finished 15-of-24 for 323 yards and was intercepted once.
Barker’s 287 yards in the opening 30 minutes was more than UK had in all but three games last year — not including the opener. His four passing touchdowns were the most in a game last season.
“(Barker) played very well (against Southern Miss) last year, in particular the first half, and did some very good things,” Stoop said. “Whenever he goes into the game and gets an opportunity, he has to function at a high level and he’s taken that attitude of just going to work every day in practice to improve himself. And sooner or later, he’s going to get an opportunity to go in a game and play and hopefully, he’ll play at a high level.”
A look at the numbers
600: The Wildcats are looking for their 600th win in school history. UK has 599 wins in 127 seasons of intercollegiate football.
149.9: Southern Miss only allowed 149.9 yards rushing last season while Kentucky rushed for 234.2 yards.
17: The Wildcats nearly return every starter from last season. There are 8 returning starters on offense and 9 on defense.
Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. at Roberts Stadium. The game will be broadcast on the CBS Sports Network.
Jonathan Greene is the editor of The Register; follow him on Twitter @jgreeneRR.