LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky's upside while digging out of yet another double-digit hole against Eastern Kentucky was having time to get things right.
The Wildcats took nothing for granted though, and rallied with an urgency that helped them finish better than they started and remain unbeaten despite their flaws.
"We could've done much better at the beginning of the game, but we picked it up eventually," said quarterback Stephen Johnson, who played perhaps the most critical role in the Wildcats' 27-16 win over the FCS Colonels on Saturday after trailing 13-3 in the second quarter.
Nearly two years after rallying late to eventually beat EKU 34-27 in overtime, Johnson and Kentucky (2-0) certainly had their work cut for them overcoming ineffective play on both sides of the ball.
Johnson threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Conrad for Kentucky's first touchdown before spinning and tip-toeing along the right sideline for the final TD in the fourth quarter. In between was Benny Snell's 25-yard TD run late in the third for a 17-16 lead, a play set up by Johnson's 43-yard completion to Blake Bone.
Johnson -- who was briefly replaced by Drew Barker in the second quarter in what he and coach Mark Stoops said was a planned substitution -- finished 15 of 22 passing for 224 yards and rushed for 48 yards. He improved to 10-4 as Kentucky's QB and 8-4 as the starter.
Snell returned from bruising his ribs early on to rush for 103 yards on 19 carries, a big improvement from his 67-yard debut last week at Southern Miss.
The Wildcats outgained EKU 436-318 in their home opener and scored the game's final 17 points. Most important, they showed signs of the team that's expected to build on last year's bowl appearance.
It was better late than never, which coach Mark Stoops will take.
"We're 2-0. That feels very good," the coach said. "The nice thing is that we know, and our players know, there are a lot of things we need to improve on. And they'll do that. We'll get better."
Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels got the fast start they wanted and seemed to have Kentucky on the ropes with a 16-10 lead. But they let the Wildcats slip away again, yielding TDs on consecutive possessions while stalling offensively. Tim Boyle completed 24 of 35 passes for 202 yards and a 7-yard TD to Ryan Markush, and ex-Louisville player L.J. Scott rushed for a 7-yard score. "We came in with the intention to win the game, the belief that we could and the belief that we would," EKU coach Mark Elder said. "So, I'm disappointed with that."
Kentucky: The Wildcats struggled for two-plus quarters before settling down to gut out another win. Johnson's arm kept them within reach, and his feet provided the insurance TD. Takeaways again were critical as they held on to the ball while getting two turnovers in clutch moments. Austin MacGinnis' streak of nine consecutive field goals ended with a second-quarter miss from 48 yards, but he hit the second of two 39-yard field goals with 23 seconds left.
Former EKU coach Dean Hood, who's now Kentucky's special teams and outside linebackers coach, downplayed the emotional factor of facing many of his former players on the other sideline. But once the game ended, Hood and some of the Colonels exchanged warm greetings.
"It was great to see them because I had stayed out of that situation," said Hood, who coached the Colonels from 2008-15. "It wouldn't have been fair to those kids coach Elder as they tried to get established for me to stay in touch. ... It was emotional at the end, just getting to see some of those guys."
Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels are off next week before hosting Tennessee Tech on Sept. 23.
Kentucky: The Wildcats open Southeastern Conference play at South Carolina on Sept. 16.
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