UK Bullpen... The Cats lost starting quarterback Drew Barker on the first series of the game and were already without starting tailback Jojo Kemp, who suffered an injury in Friday's practice and was unable to play. For many teams, that would have led to a long, frustrating night on the offensive side of the ball, but UK took the old "Next Man Up" mantra and ran with it. Stephen Johnson II looked like a seasoned veteran in only his second game as a Cat, playing sensational at quarterback. He completed 17 of 22 passes (77 percent) for 310 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 51 yards and finishing the night with a zero in the turnover column. One couldn't ask for a much better effort from the (former?) backup. The rushing attack got its usual electricity from Stanley "Boom" Williams (18 carries, 181 yards, 1 TD) but it was freshman Benny Snell Jr. stepping up in place of Kemp that stole the show with 136 yards and four touchdowns, which tied the school record for most rushing scores in a single game. Snell gives UK a bruising option it hasn't had since maybe Artose Pinner. The running backs owed part of that success to the O-Line, which also shined by getting Landon Young (first career start in place of injured Cole Mosier), Logan Stenberg and Bunchy Stallings heavy in the rotation. All three showed some strong potential.
Use of The Tight End... Kentucky fans have been flabbergasted by the team's failure to utilize the tight end for almost a decade. After getting a few glimpses of C.J. Conrad's talent last season, we finally saw the full scope of what kind of weapon he could be against New Mexico State. The sophomore from Ohio caught five passes for 133 yards and three touchdowns, two of them off really nice quarterback RPO (run-pass option) calls. It was the closest thing we've seen to Jacob Tamme since he left Lexington for what has become a long and productive NFL career. The three TD receptions were the most by a UK player since Dicky Lyons Jr. against Florida during the 2007 season. Kentucky also threw twice to backup tight end Greg Hart for 16 yards. It's a positive step for the offense that they need to keep building upon.
Overall Offensive Gameplan... When you score 62 points, rush for 300-plus and pass for 300-plus for perhaps the first time in school history, you know you've put together a great gameplan. It doesn't matter if it was a Sun Belt opponent like NMSU. You still have to go out and execute, as UK learned the hard way in the second half against Southern Miss. Gran was pushing all the right buttons on Saturday, establishing the run while picking his spots for play-action passing and deep shots down the field.
Ending The Punt Return Drought... For the first time since Randall Cobb was returning punts in 2010, the Cats took one back to the house when Charles Walker raced 65 yards on a punt return against NMSU. It was good to see Walker bounce back from fumbling a punt earlier in the game, which led to a touchdown for the Aggies. Now that the Cats have that one out of the way, they can work on ending the kickoff return drought that dates back to Derrick Locke in 2009.
Quarterback Depth Concerns... Although Johnson was extremely successful in relief of Barker, the latter's back issue that sent him to the hospital could be a major factor for UK moving forward. The Cats were already thin at the position following the off-season transfers of Patrick Towles and Reese Phillips. The third man on the depth chart appears to be Luke Wright, a walk-on transfer from Cincinnati who saw a few snaps at the end of Saturday's game. The staff would like to do everything possible to redshirt freshman Gunnar Hoak. With Johnson being a dual-threat quarterback -- and a thin one at that, weighing about 185 -- could it affect the play calls that offensive coordinator Eddie Gran chooses in the future?
End of Half Execution... For the second time in three games this season, UK scored a late touchdown at the end of the second quarter only to see the opponent negate it with a demoralizing touchdown drive of its own with under a minute remaining in the half. The Cats managed to botch the scenario two different ways. Against Southern Miss, they were too aggressive with the formation and did not have enough men back to prevent the deep ball. Against New Mexico State, they played what appeared to be a more conservative "quarters" look, but failed to get the Aggies receiver on the ground after an intermediate-length pass across the middle. It arguably cost them the game in Week 1. They were fortunate this time that it only resulted in a 35-35 tie and many grumbling fans at halftime.
Defense... We've beaten this dead horse for three weeks, but when you hire a head coach specifically to tap into his defensive expertise, it's hard to swallow giving up 42 points and 500 yards of total offense to New Mexico State. It marked the first time the Aggies have scored that many points against an SEC opponent in program history. Their previous high was 24 against South Carolina in 2002. Let that sink in a moment. Here's the rub: The Cats have a very winnable game coming up next week against the Gamecocks, who are really struggling on the offensive side of the ball. But one has to think if NMSU can put 42 points and 500 yards of offense on the Cats, surely South Carolina has the athletes to do the same. At this point, we're starting to wonder if the opponent even matters. It all looks fairly similar against this UK defense, and it doesn't look like the Cats have the personnel -- particularly in the front seven -- to fix the problems. Kentucky now ranks 122nd (out of 128 FBS programs) in both scoring defense at 43.7 points per game and total defense at 528 yards per game. The Cats are on a pace to give up 6,336 yards of total offense this season. For some staggering perspective, the most Mike Major's defense gave up during the Hal Mumme era was 4,465.