Kentucky Football Success Comes On Shoulders of Stephen Johnson

Kentucky Football Found its quarterback in Stephen Johnson, maturation of unheralded junior college transfer the difference maker for Cats season

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

Way back in September, when starting quarterback Drew Barker went down with a back injury, the already 0-2 Kentucky Wildcats likely felt a sense of impending doom. A blown lead to Southern Miss and a blowout loss in the Swamp to Florida had marked their season thus far, and now the team was forced to turn to the backup quarterback.

Stephen Johnson travelled the road untaken, when compared to other FBS quarterbacks, heading first to Grambling, before transferring to the College of the Desert, before somehow getting a shot here at Kentucky. And that, for this Wildcat squad, has made all the difference.

Because its Johnson’s maturation, steadiness, and ultimately his toughness and grit, that have come to define this Kentucky team. And he did it running two completely different types of offenses, which is a remarkable feat for a first-year college QB.

Johnson stepped into the job in the middle of the win over New Mexico State, after Drew Barker went down early. Johnson came on in relief, stepping into an up-tempo passing attack to throw for 310 yards and 3 touchdowns, on 17-22 passing. He also ran for 51 yards in the winning effort.

But Kentucky was in the process of forging a new offensive identity as well. In that same game, the Cats rushed for 389 yards, and in the coming weeks the offensive line jelled into one the top units in all of football, enabling Boom Williams and Benny Snell to both rush for more than 1,000 yards. It also allowed Johnson to blossom in the process. The weight of the team wasn’t solely on his shoulders, but it soon would be.

“I think myself, I think I’ve improved a lot,” Johnson said. “I know that first snap in Florida, I was extremely nervous. But now, I think I’ve calmed down a little bit and really trust in the offense a little bit more.”

And Johnson got better and better, his deep ball becoming a serious threat against even the best SEC teams Kentucky faced, before the QB was finally banged up against Tennessee in a losing effort. Then with bowl eligibility on the line, and Kentucky trailing by two scores early, Johnson hobbled onto the field against Austin Peay and immediately rallied Stoops Troops. 

It was clear then, Stephen Johnson is our guy.

And then against Louisville it all came together on the biggest of stages. Facing the sixth ranked running defense in FBS, the Cats turned to their junior quarterback. They leaned on his arm to throw for yardage. They leaned on his legs to move the chains on key first downs. His deep ball was never better, delivering monster scores early to keep matching Heisman hopeful Lamar Jackson, keeping the Cats in the game.

And then on the final drive, he did what Lamar Jackson, on this day, could not – he delivered. A 29-yard pass to Jeff Badet to get the ball to midfield. A 15-yard rush down to the Louisville 36. A 5-yard curl pass to Ryan Timmons, taking the ball down to the Louisville 29 hardline.

Finally, Kentucky kicker Austin MacGinnis lined up and drilled one right down the middle of the uprights from 47 yards. Kentucky wins.

Stephen Johnson lead the Cats to a remarkable upset win over Louisville, outplaying the potential Heisman Trophy winner in the process. The Governor’s trophy, and the Howard Schnellenberger MVP trophy in hand, the final day of the regular season exemplified just how far Mark Stoops and this Kentucky football program have come.

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And so much of that success is owed to the toughness of Stephen Johnson.

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