Beginning the season with a loss is not ideal by any stretch of the imagination. It’s safe to say a fair share of Big Blue Nation anticipated the outcome, recognizing the actual lack of overall talent and discipline on the team left over from a vacated coaching staff. But an equal number, at the very least, surely thought the Cats would open the Mark Stoops era with a victory. The 35-26 defeat at the hands of the Hilltoppers does nothing more than provide the harsh reality that Kentucky football is very low on the totem pole, and the path back to the top will be a slow and arduous one. Most of the fan base seems to be accepting of that.
Surely Commonwealth Stadium will be packed to the gills for the home opener, and so long as the Cats knock off Miami, the loyal support remains true. The magnitude of this game cannot be overlooked. Begin the season 0-2 with losses to two teams you arguably should have beaten could do significant damage to the fan support Stoops has worked so hard to gain back. It may not be jump-ship time yet, but a loss to this Miami team that was most recently throttled by Marshall would not be a good look.
The Redhawks enter this year with a new face at quarterback. Former stud Zac Dysert is the school’s all-time leading passer — yes, even over Ben Roethlisberger — but that air-it-out offense had little effect on the team’s overall record the last two seasons. Senior Austin Boucher takes the reigns and there is plenty of reason for Hawks fans to feel confident; in his freshman season he passed for more than 1,000 yards while Dysert was injured. He took a back seat for the last two seasons, but now he returns to the spot light and the offense is entirely on his shoulders.
Boucher takes over a unit that ranked 22nd overall in FBS in passing offense a year ago (298.7 yards per game). But because he has just 23 passing attempts over the last 24 games, he may need to knock off some dust. Against Marshall he struggled, going 10-for-22 with 165 yards passing and an interception, but his potential is much greater than that.
With such a pass-happy focused offense, the running game lacks significantly. Miami ranked last in rushing offense in the MAC last season. However, against Marshall, the team carried the ball 34 times to just 23 passing attempts. That seems to be an anomaly more than a predictor, simply an attempt to get the offense in gear. The philosophy of the Redhawks’ offense is still to air it out.
A rookie quarterback torched the Kentucky defense last time out, as Western’s Brandon Doughty tossed 27 passes for 271 yards on the UK secondary. That spells trouble in this one too. We all knew the Cats pass defense was suspect at best, but what we didn’t expect was the porous front line. WKU rushed the ball way better than they should have, and the D-line getting pushed around by a Sun Belt team should truly strike a nerve with the front four.
Miami’s defense allowed Marshall to gain 591 yards of offense last week, an offense that returns eight starters that was second in the country in passing, and sixth overall. However, the defense of the Herd was horrid, allowing the second-most points in college football with more than 43 per game. Miami managed to score just two touchdowns.
The strength of the Redhawks team seems to be the high powered offense, but it surely didn’t prove it against literally one of the worst defenses in college football.
Neal Brown and Kentucky should unleash the Air Raid against Miami. There was some grumblings about Joker-ish plays against the Tops, but there will be no excuses not to throw the ball constantly against the Redhawks. Marshall unquestionably has a more proven passing game, but there is no reason Kentucky shouldn’t be able to put up 30+ points running a similar game plan.
The run defense for the Redhawks is lacking as well. Last year Miami was torn up for nearly 3,000 yards and 35 rushing touchdowns. And both MU defensive ends have been replaced with new faces after last season. Maybe that is a blessing in disguise for the Hawks, but new starters usually need time to warm up.
In the red zone against Western, Kentucky went 4-for-4 with two touchdowns and two field goals. On the other side Miami was just 2-for-2 inside the red zone, having most every other non-scoring drive end in a three-and-out. In fact, nine of Miami’s 15 drives ended after three plays, and two others ended with turnovers.
Third down conversions are even uglier. Miami was just 2-for-13 on third down against Marshall, with both coming on the first two drives of the game. Kentucky’s rate isn’t pretty, but it is a respectable 40 percent (6-for-15). By comparison, the UK defense held Western to just 2-for-10 on third down.
It was a 14-14 ballgame at halftime of the Miami-Marhsall game, but coming out of the locker room the Thundering Herd scored 38 unanswered points on the Redhawks defense, turning a heated battle into a blowout.
Kentucky managed to keep the pressure on and answer both WKU touchdowns in the 2nd half with scores of their own. A big part of playing with good teams is being able to stay within striking distance. It maintains confidence and allows the opposing team to feel the pressure. With Kentucky being able to keep ballgames close like it did against Western, if nothing else it means improvement over last season. That kind of effort will eventually begin to translate to upset victories.