Kentucky football report card: How did the Wildcats grade out against Southern Miss?

HATTIESBURG, Miss. — It might have been ugly to most, but Kentucky coach Mark Stoops thought the Wildcats’ 24-17 win against Southern Miss on Saturday was “a thing of beauty.”

The Golden Eagles held a substantial yardage advantage, 364 to 254. The Golden Eagles had 19 first downs to the Wildcats’ 12, but it was Kentucky that started 1-0 — about the only number that mattered when the sun went down at M.M. Roberts Stadium.

“That shows a lot of character, a lot of guts, a lot of determination from that football team to come out and win that game when you’re not playing your best football,” Stoops said after the game.

Here’s how we graded the performance:

Offense: C-minus

It was more bad than good. Seven points came on a defensive scoop and score, which means the offense scored just 17 points on 254 yards — that’s not a lot.

Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran was reluctant to let quarterback Stephen Johnson throw the ball and Gran admitted he stuck with the ineffective wildcat formation for too long. Those two things, combined with a shaky offensive line, spelled trouble for the Cats offense.

Johnson missed a few throws, but his overall performance was steady. He completed 11 of 20 passes for 176 yards and a score. He rushed for another touchdown. But the ball was out of his hands for much of the night.

Sophomore running back Benny Snell had a busy workday of 20 carries, but the bulldozer was bottled up. He rushed for 67 yards and an average of 3.3 yards per carry. The wildcat formation wasn’t working, but neither was any facet of the run game. Kentucky averaged just 2.2 yards per carry.

RELATED: What Mark Stoops said after Kentucky’s win against Southern Miss

Perhaps the offensive line was the root of the inefficiency. Center Bunchy Stallings missed a big chunk of the game with an ankle injury, and Gran said continuity was lost after that. Kentucky wasn’t getting a push up front, and there could be depth concerns moving forward.

As for the positive on offense? Junior tight end C.J. Conrad caught 3 passes for 97 yards and a touchdown.

Kentucky only had 55 offensive snaps compared to Southern Miss’ 78.

Defense: A-minus

Kentucky’s defense won the game. How often has that been the case?

The much-criticized defensive line impressed, and senior nose guard Matt Elam was right in the middle of it. Southern Miss running back Ito Smith had no room to run. He managed just 37 yards on 16 carries — an average of 2.3 yards per carry.

The defensive line was strong, but Kentucky’s outside linebacker duo was stronger. Juniors Josh Allen and Denzil Ware were better than the Southern Miss players tasked with blocking them. They combined for 2 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. Oh, and Allen forced a fumble and Ware recovered 2 fumbles. The second went for a 20-yard scoop and score.

RELATED: Blitz Brothers Josh Allen and Denzil Ware shine in season opener

Turnovers were the difference. Kentucky forced 3, and Southern Miss forced only 1. How important was that margin?

“Huge,” Stoops said. “Very, very big.”

Josh Allen was Kentucky's defensive MVP after Week 1

Posted by Kentucky Wildcats – SEC Country on Saturday, September 2, 2017

Special teams: A

Don’t look now, but Kentucky has found a punter.

Graduate transfer Matt Panton showed off his Australian-style rugby punts, and were they effective. Panton pinned Southern Miss on its 1-yard line not once, but twice, on Saturday.

“We knew he was very accurate there, but he just was consistent and gave us some good roll,” Stoops said.

Panton was used in every punting situation against Southern Miss. Sophomore Grant McKinniss, who started for Kentucky last season, didn’t see the field.

Panton punted 9 times with a 42-yard average — 4 yards better than McKinniss’ average last season.

Punting wasn’t Kentucky’s only special teams highlight. Junior running back Sihiem King struggled running the ball, but he reeled off a 46-yard kick return.

Senior kicker Austin MacGinnis was called on once, and he came through. He connected on a 41-yard field goal in the third quarter.

Overall: B-minus

How can something be ugly and beautiful at the same time for Kentucky? Just ask Stoops. His Wildcats produced something along those lines Saturday.

Kentucky is 1-0 to start the season. The same couldn’t be said a year ago, and that’s what made Saturday a success for the Cats.

WATCH: Here's what Kentucky coach Mark Stoops had to say after the Cats' 24-17 win at Southern Miss

Posted by Kentucky Wildcats – SEC Country on Saturday, September 2, 2017

The post Kentucky football report card: How did the Wildcats grade out against Southern Miss? appeared first on SEC Country.

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