HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- Stephen Johnson threw for 176 yards and a touchdown and Kentucky's defense recovered two crucial fumbles in the second half to lead the Wildcats over Southern Mississippi 24-17 on Saturday.
Kentucky was clinging to a 17-10 lead in the third quarter when Darius West slammed his helmet into Southern Miss quarterback Kwadra Griggs' arm, forcing a fumble that Denzil Ware scooped up and ran 20 yards for the touchdown.
It wasn't a great day for the Kentucky offense, but coach Mark Stoops refused to do too much complaining.
"It was a thing of beauty to me," Stoops said. "I know a lot of people are going to have their own opinions, but I loved it."
Kentucky's offense had some success during the first half over the middle of the field on two pass plays from Johnson to tight end C.J. Conrad. The second completion was a 23-yard touchdown that put the Wildcats ahead 14-3 midway through the second quarter.
Johnson completed 11 of 20 passes and had no interceptions. Benny Snell led the Wildcats with 67 yards rushing.
"As a whole team, we can fight for 60 minutes," Johnson said. "If the offense isn't doing too well or the special teams isn't doing well, the defense can pick us up, which they did today."
The Southern Miss offense improved significantly in the second half when Griggs replaced Keon Howard at quarterback. Griggs hit Korey Robertson for two touchdowns -- one in the third quarter and another in the fourth. The second pulled the Golden Eagles within 24-17 with 12:42 remaining.
Griggs finished with 222 yards passing and two touchdowns, all in the second half.
Kentucky: It wasn't always pretty, but Kentucky was able to pull ahead in the first half and shake off a Southern Miss rally in the second half to win the season opener. The Wildcats' offense was just so-so, but the defense was solid. Ware's fumble recovery for the touchdown was a crucial play.
Even though he was wide open on his touchdown run, the junior linebacker had just one thing on his mind after he picked up the fumble.
"Run, run, run because somebody's coming," Ware said. "I'm not trying to get hit. I don't want the big hit to happen to me."
Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles made this one interesting, but a sputtering offense and a few big mistakes ended their chance to beat Kentucky twice in a row. Griggs gave the offense a lift with his play in the second half, making the case that he's the team's best option at QB going forward.
Kentucky: The Wildcats host Eastern Kentucky next Saturday.