Toledo put up a fight for the first half, but Kentucky pulled away in the second to finish the job against one of the MAC’s best teams in the season opener. Was it the blowout you wanted to see while you were listening to “Grove Street Party” at 8 a.m. this morning? No. But was it a solid win against a scary non-conference opponent in the first game of the season after losing several players from a year ago to the NFL? Of course.
No complaints — at least not too many– here in how Kentucky earned its first win. The Cats secured the victory, 38-24, and learned a few things to address moving forward.
Here are 10 key takeaways from the game…
1. The secondary was worrisome before the game and it only got worse after kickoff.
By show of hands, how many people said a bad word when Jamari Brown gave up a 39-yard pass on third down when Toledo was on its own side of the field and staring down a three-and-out on the first drive of the game? My hand is raised. Yours is too. Some of you panicked. You can admit it.
Brown made a horrible play on the ball (did he think it was short?) and allowed the huge gain to put Toledo in scoring position rather than punting it away on its first possession. The Rockets scored a touchdown to go up 7-0 four plays later, and a collective overreaction among Big Blue Nation ensued.
It was the first of a couple bad beats for Brown, one of UK’s new starting cornerbacks, and it only added to the worries surrounding the new secondary. You can get away with that against Toledo; you can’t against most of the other teams on Kentucky’s schedule. Maybe it was a learning lesson and it doesn’t happen again. (Fingers crossed.)
To Brown’s credit, he had two big pass breakups later in the game. Newcomer Brandin Echols added another three pass breakups.
2. Kentucky couldn’t get off the field on third down, or convert any of its own, in the first half.
Brown’s misstep cost Kentucky a third down stop, but he wasn’t alone in giving up yardage on third down. Toledo converted five of its first seven third down plays in the first half, while Kentucky’s offense struggled to extend drives in its own third down situations.
“I think that was the game early, that’s why it was close early,” said Stoops. “They were converting third down, we weren’t.”
At halftime, Toledo was 5-of-8 on third down; Kentucky was 1-of-5.
The third down defense improved in the second half as Toledo converted only two of its eight third downs after halftime. UK’s defense locked in and got stops, and that’s why the score changed in Kentucky’s favor through the end of the game.
3. Toledo’s offense went flat when its starting QB went down.
Mitchell Guadagni was doing what he wanted on UK’s defense until an injury sent him to the sideline early in the second half. Until that point in the game, Guadagni had 122 yards through the air and another 90 yards and a touchdown with his feet.
His backup, Carter Bradley, looked good for a brief moment once he took over, but Toledo’s offense never really got going again with Guadagni out of the game. We’d be lying to ourselves if we pretended like Toledo losing Guadagni didn’t matter.
4. Unsung Hero of the Game: Max Duffy
While Kentucky’s offense was taking a little extra time to get going, punter Max Duffy saved the day in the field position game. He pinned Toledo back several times and five of his six punts in the game were for over 50 yards through the air, including a 61-yarder and two punts downed inside the 20.
PUNTER U IS BACK!
5. Lynn Bowden appears to have good company at wide receiver.
One of the biggest unknowns going into the season was the wide receiver group outside of Lynn Bowden and if anyone will step up to be a reliable target opposite of Bowden in the passing game. We can now say Ahmad Wagner, Allen Dailey, Bryce Oliver and veteran Josh Ali took a big step forward in being trusted options as all four wideouts made big plays in their first audition of the season.
Wagner was second to Bowden among receivers in both receptions and yards with three catches for 57 yards. Dailey had two grabs for 31 yards through the air, while Ali and Oliver each had one catch, but both went for touchdowns.
Oliver’s TD was a 32-yard catch in the end zone on his first career reception and the only time he was targeted in the game. He out-fought the defensive back, who was in great position, to extend UK’s lead to two possessions midway through the third quarter.
Overall, the wide receivers looked like a playmaking group, at least for a game, to ease the concerns around the position.
And for the first time in my lifetime as a UK football fan, no dropped passes???
6. Ahmad Wagner is still drawing pass interference calls and it is the best play in the playbook until someone stops it.
Saturday taught us that Ahmad Wagner can in fact catch the football when it is thrown to him, but it also confirmed that he is still good for drawing a pass interference call if he doesn’t get the catch. Wagner was targeted five times against Toledo; three were caught and he drew a flag on the other two. When he drew his second pass interference call, his career stat line read: seven targets, five pass interferences. Is there a better play in the playbook?
After the game Terry Wilson bragged on his big target, saying, “He’s a beast. He is going to show a lot of people what he is really capable of; he’s so strong and so big, it’s hard to stop him.”
7. All three running backs showed why UK’s backfield will be just fine without Benny Snell.
Replacing Benny Snell is an impossible task for one man, so it is a good thing Kentucky has three men to take on that job. UK’s stable of backs shared the load for 176 yards on the ground and two scores in Saturday’s win.
Snell’s old roommate, AJ Rose, got the most touches with 16 carries for 64 yards as the group’s starter and first option. Behind him, Kavosiey Smoke stole the spotlight with 78 yards on only seven touches, one of which went for 40 yards and his first career touchdown, in his first college action.
Chris Rodriguez didn’t get as many opportunities, but he too looked good with the rock. Rodriguez had 34 yards on five carries, highlighted by a 21-yard gain with defenders hanging onto his back.
Mark Stoops still wants more, though. He said afterward, “I thought there was some good and some bad. We’ll go watch the film. I think there are some things — I don’t want to downplay it because I thought they did some good things. There are some things we need to improve on.”
8. DeAndre Square made a strong case for SEC Defensive Player of the Week.
Josh Allen who? (Just kidding. Kind of.)
Several UK linebackers played well in their first game without Josh Allen to lean on, but none were as good as DeAndre Square. In the first game of his second season in Lexington, Square had a career-high 11 tackles, a tackle for a loss, a shared sack and his first career interception. The interception came off of a deflection… a deflection he caused and hauled in.
I know everyone wants to talk about the significance of Allen’s departure to the league, but Square’s performance, plus what we saw out of Jordan Wright, Chris Oats, Josh Paschal, Boogie Watson and of course Kash Daniel, suggest Kentucky will be just fine in the middle of that defense.
9. Terry Wilson did not make any major mistakes and that’s all anyone really wanted out of him in Week 1.
Wilson had a good game throwing the ball (19-of-26, 246 yards and two touchdowns) but the numbers that stand out most from his performance are the zero turnovers and only one sack. Sure, he missed a throw or two and almost made a crucial mistake by throwing it backwards, but for the most part, Wilson looked comfortable and poised with the ball in his hands throughout the entire game. Plus he only got better as the game went on, a sign that he was settling in to his first game action since the Citrus Bowl.
He passed his first test.
10. One win down, room to grow.
Like Mark Stoops said to open his press conference, “There is an awful lot to improve on, that’s for sure.” The important thing is they survived a rusty first game of the year and there is game tape to now show the team to get better before another MAC team comes to town next weekend.
It wasn’t perfect, but 1-0 is 1-0.