Plenty of positive hype surrounded the University of Kentucky Football team entering the Mark Stoops Era, despite never playing a down. A wise man once said, “Don’t let Bobby have the ball first.” Bobby got it first and never took his foot off the (motorcycle) accelerator. His first scripted series couldn’t have been ran more perfectly, not breaking rhythm until they reached the end zone. The game featured some ups and downs throughout the first half, starting slow offensively and struggling to tackle on defense. Fans expecting to see an Air Raid were instead treated to the newly coined “Brown Ground Pound”, which proved to be successful for awhile, heading into halftime down 21-17. The Cats couldn’t take advantage of having the ball first, with the biggest play occurring after Clowney-esque hit by Andrew Jackson on 3rd down in Topper territory against Jonathan George stalled the drive. Without an effective offense, WKU took the Cats D to the wood shed in the 3rd quarter, creating a lead the Cats couldn’t overcome. There were a few shimmers of light in the 4th- the Cats kept attacking deep, putting the game within reach until Mansour missed the extra point- but it was too much for this young team. Coach Stoops was disappointed afterwards, “I thought we’d play better than that.” Despite the loss, there were many lessons learned tonight on LP Field.
– Petrino is a hell of a play caller. His first drive as the coach of WKU was one of the most beautiful, seamless drives I’ve seen. Antonio Andrews ran like a mad man, daring the UK linebackers to tackle him (SPOILER: they couldn’t). Petrino’s passes were scripted even better, using short drops to prevent any sort of pass rush by the defensive line (don’t let Matt tell you they performed poorly, they just didn’t have the time to get to him until later on in the game). The play calling played to their strengths and to UK’s weaknesses. Petrino coached himself into a great job in the near future.
– They NEVER gave up. Mental collapses seemed to be the mantra for the Kentucky Football team last season. With the game starting to head into an ugly direction, some Cat fans started leaving before the 3rd quarter was over. The Cats didn’t put down their gloves until the final horn sounded, putting the ‘Attack Every Day’ media campaign into practice. The staff amped up the pressure, using Max Smith’s big arm to go deep multiple times, converting one into a a 34 yard TD to Demarco Robinson. The score with 1:37 could’ve have put the Cats within reach, but Joe Mansour’s extra point off the upright kept the Cats from pulling it to an 8 point game. It may have been the most Kentucky thing ever, but as an eternal optimist I can at least hang my hat on the fact that these guys have a pitbull pup’s mentality- mean and ready to fight, but needing maturation.
– This QB situation is going to be freaking nuts. Jalen Whitlow entered the game with a surprising ‘deer in the headlights’ look, losing the edge that I perceived him to have throughout fall camp. His first few throws were almost all interceptions, looking anxious in the pocket and unsure of his decision making. Jalen only had 16 yards of passing at half, but his wheels made the team look like they were heading towards a primarily Read Option offense. Jalen improved some, but in the 4th quarter Max Smith assumed the role. His deep balls had the right touch, racking in 125 yards of passing, 47 more than Whitlow had for the other 3 quarters.
– The linebacker play is pathetic, to put it lightly. Playing linebacker is all about gap responsibility, something they failed to put into practice during many of Antonio Andrews’ quick cut-backs. Avery is excellent in this aspect, but even he struggled from time to time. Even if the linebacker was in the right hole, they weren’t going to make the tackle. I don’t like to blame everything on just one thing, but the team’s inability to wrap up Western in the first half made you think Rick Minter was still on the sidelines. To make matters worse, they were allowing way too many short passes to get by them. At least Coach Stoops warned the public many times before the season that the linebackers were going to struggle.
– Raymond Sanders played very well. The coaches have given Raymond Sanders unrelenting praise since camp began, bestowing him the role as a ‘guy that might surprise you’. Raymond took his practice performance onto the field, coming up just one yard shy of surpassing the century mark. The staff has been yearning for playmakers, with Raymond giving the Cats their first bit of momentum after a huge run down the UK sideline. He had struggled running between the tackles in the past, something he did exceptionally well today. If the Cats continue to use the read option with Whitlow, Sanders will be a steady guy by his side.
– AK might be the best WR. The UK Wide Receivers got their first touchdown ever today when Demarco reeled in that late touchdown, but Senior Anthony Kendrick stepped in and performed well throughout the game. Despite having a crucial drop in the second half, AK caught 3 passes for 57 yards. His frame helps him, but most importantly he attacks the catch, preventing defenders from sneaking into the ball’s path. Look for AK to be a main asset for the QBs throughout the season.
– Young mistakes almost outweighed WKU’s. WKU kept the Cats in the game with their wet hands. I don’t know if they were fed popcorn before the game, but the WRs dropped multiple passes and the Toppers coughed up the ball twice. The Cats mistakes weren’t as obvious, but there were too many stupid penalties. On 3rd and long deep in their own territory, 2 consecutive false starts prevented the Cats from even attempting to convert. Despite using referees often at camp, you can’t simulate a loud crowd. It rattled the youngsters, something they cannot afford down the road.
-A great high point: the Cat Walk. After experiencing a great Cat Walk for the first time since I was a kid, it made me so happy to know that the fan support is back. It’s not the only high point from the game but I want to emphasize this because people can irrationally decide to write off this team because of one loss: DON’T. WKU won a bowl game last year and will only be better with a great coaching staff. The last thing the player’s need is to lose the one constant. It’s frustrating because they’re a direction, but timeless cliches like “Rome wasn’t built in a day” are timeless because they are true. I fully hope and expect the Cat Walk to be just as exciting, if not better next week at Commonwealth.