Kentucky Football: 5 Thanks for Cats Fans This Thanksgiving

Kentucky Wildcats: 5 Thanks for Cats Football This Thanksgiving, leading to the teams’s first bowl season since 2010

For the first time since 2010, the Kentucky Wildcats are going bowling, so let’s take a minute to give thanks to a few key items that have helped make this 6-5 season possible as the Cats head into their season-finale rivalry versus Louisville.

There’s so much to be thankful for right now for this rising Kentucky football program. The new Joe  Craft football center and Commonwealth Stadium renovations elevates Kentucky’s football facilities to among the best in the nation. A winning season thus far brought a 4-4 conference record, the fist time Kentucky has been competitive in the SEC in some time. Young, talented players dot the Cats’ roster, recruiting is generating some buzz, and there’s two big games left on this year’s calendar, the Cards this Saturday and a bowl game to be determined soon.

Nov 5, 2016; Lexington, KY, USA; Georgia Bulldogs running back Sony Michel (1) runs the ball against Kentucky Wildcats linebacker Jordan Jones (34) in the first half at Commonwealth Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky is giving up 220 yard rushing per game (ranked 105th in the country), 208 passing yards (39th), for a total of 428.5 yards per game (82nd). Just as troubling, the Cats give up 6 yards per play, which makes it tough to ever get your defense off the field when the opponent is moving the chains most every 2nd down. When the Cats do force a team into a 3rd down, opponents are converting nearly 44-percent of the time, which ranks 103rd in the nation.

But within that porousness, Jordan Jones has been a bright spot. The sophomore linebacker has blossomed into a tackling machine, leading the Cats with 90 tackles on the season, including 62 solos. Jones has 12 tackles for loss, 3 sacks and has forced a fumble on his way to having a breakout season, potentially becoming the next great Kentucky linebacker in the tradition of Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan, who both went on to play football on Sundays.

Oct 29, 2016; Columbia, MO, USA; Kentucky Wildcats safety Marcus McWilson (15) hands off to running back Stanley Williams (18) during the first half against the Missouri Tigers at Faurot Field. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a long time since Kentucky teams could line up in the SEC and play smash mouth football. But that’s exactly what has transpired in 2016, led by the Wildcat formation at times, and two outstanding running backs in Boom Williams and Benny Snell, throw in Jojo Kemp for good measure, and the Cats are averaging 242.4 yards per game.

The rushing attack is currently ranked 17th in the country in yardage, and the Cats have rushed for 27 touchdowns and 5.54 yards per rush. A pair of 1,000-yard backs, Williams and Snell, have had success against even some of the best defenses in the country during Kentucky’s SEC slate. Williams is getting an incredible 7.3 yards per carry, with 6 touchdowns, while Snell is rushing for 6 yards per carry, with 12 scores on the year. Boom has proven as explosive as Snell has been workman, and the Wildcat formation has become Kentucky’s go-to offensive weapon. When things get tight, even Stephen Johnson has been big using his legs to move the chains, making Kentucky tougher to defend in short yardages situations.

Sep 5, 2015; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats offensive guard Ramsey Meyers (69), center Jon Toth (72) and offensive guard Zach West (75) during the game against the Louisiana Lafayette Ragin Cajuns at Commonwealth Stadium. Kentucky defeated Louisiana Lafayette 40-33. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Running the football starts up front, in the trenches, and nowhere on the field is Kentucky more improved, more dominant, than on the offensive line. For all of Snell’s pounding runs, for all of Boom’s explosiveness, the offensive line is the MVP for this year’s Cats.

In fact, the unit was recently nominated for the Joe Moore Award, which recognizes the country’s most outstanding offensive line units. Kentucky is one of 18 teams nominated for this second-year award.

The notary for this unit, as it should, starts with senior Jon Toth. Destined to play on Sundays next fall, Toth is likely to be in the running for the Outland Trophy, given to the country’s best lineman, and a Senior Bowl game.

Along with Toth, as many as nine Cats have been used in the rotation up front, including Kyle Meadows, Cole Mosier, Ramsey Meyers, Zach West, Landon Young, Logan Sternberg, Bunch Stallings, George Asafo-Adjei. The unit is big, physical, and they’ve embraced heavy rotation to keep players fresh, along with a nasty attitude of physicality.

As such, Snell and Williams mark the first time Kentucky has ever had two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season. Because of this unit, the Cats are punching SEC defenses in the mouth. And it’s a very welcome sight.

Nov 5, 2016; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Stephen Johnson (15) runs the ball against the Georgia Bulldogs in the first half at Commonwealth Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not the numbers that blow you away with Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson, it’s the toughness. Since coming in for an injured Drew Barker, Johnson has been a gamer, providing a running threat for opposing defenses, while throwing a beautiful deep ball that demands the secondary play honest.

Johnson has completed 110 of 204 passes for 1,524 yards and 9 touchdowns, against 5 interceptions, good for an efficiency rating of 126.3. His longest completion of 72 yards, and several other bombs to Jeff Badet and others, have been a real weapon that have helped Kentucky’s ground game not have to run against eight men continuously in the box.

More importantly, Johnson has earned the trust of the Kentucky offense. Nowhere was that more clear than after the disastrous start on Senior Day against Austin Peay, a 13-0 deficit, a pick-6 from the backup, and an injured Johnson on the sideline.

But when Johnson got the call to warm up, it was the momentum changer of the game. Twenty-one quick points ensued, and Johnson lead the Cats back to bowl season.

Nov 19, 2016; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats running back Benny Snell (26) runs the ball against Austin Peay Governors defensive back Trent Taylor (9) in the first half at Commonwealth Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky already had good running backs coming into he 2016 season. Boom Williams and Jojo Kemp, a pair of explosive, shifty runners with breakaway speed, were expected to carry the load. But then a freshman named Benny Snells started getting carries between the tackles, then more form the Wildcat formation, and in the process the entire complexion of Kentucky’s offense changed.

Snell added a level of toughness and power that was missing in Kentucky’s ground attack. Able to run through first-level defenders and open field arm tackles, the freshman still has plenty of speed to get the corner when needed.

As such, Snell broke Moe Williams school freshman rushing record, went over 1,000 yards in 11 games, and leads the team with 12 rushing touchdowns.

But its the immeasurable stats that tell the tale the truest, like the fourth quarter drive against South Carolina, where everyone in the building new Snell was getting the ball each and every play. And the young freshman, behind that big offensive line, ran it right down the Gamecocks’ throats.

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