Outside of the rain that hit the Kroger Field parking lots at around 11am, it was an absolutely beautiful day in Central Kentucky. The Cats took the field at 3:30 in front of a crowd just shy of 50,000 as the entire Big Blue Nation looked to get off to a fast start in 2018.
Terry Wilson made his first career start at the FBS level and it will be one remembered for the miscues. Kentucky did a lot of good things on Saturday afternoon but ball security was not one of them. The Wildcats had four first half turnovers in the first game of the season after committing just 15 turnovers in 2018.
The game saw alternating quarterbacks and a somewhat dominant performance by the back eight of the defense. The offensive line started slow but once the seal broke it was an outstanding performance from what could be a two-headed monster at tailback.
Kentucky posted 35 points on Saturday as they ran 70 plays for 427 total yards. The ground game carried the way as the Wildcats rushed for 299 yards on a seven yards per carry average. It was a coming out party for redshirt sophomore A.J. Rose, who rushed for over 100 yards and a couple touchdowns in the spring game, was the star of the day. The Cleveland native scored his first two collegiate touchdowns on eight carries for 104 yards. Rose’s explosive run towards the end of the first quarter got the offense rolling and loosened up the CMU defense.
At the beginning of the game, the Chips were stacking the box as both their safeties were playing just 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. After a couple of failed series, UK finally got to the edge and made one miss. This run by Rose would open things up for the offense.
After a slow start, Benny Snell began to find his groove in the second quarter and he finished with his 13th career 100-yard effort. The junior posted 125 yards on 20 carries highlighted by a spectacular 52-yard run in the second quarter.
Now on to the elephant in the room. The quarterback play was fairly grotesque as both Terry Wilson and Gunnar Hoak combined for a brutal stat line. Wilson completed 61% of his attempts but only averaged 4.3 yards per pass with two interceptions. Hoak, meanwhile, completed less than 50% of his passes and averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt. Add in Wilson’s fumble and it was a pretty horrible day.
Both players had bright moments as Hoak led a touchdown drive to end the half that ended up being the final lead change of the game. Wilson finished the game with 38 rushing yards and led the team on its two touchdown drives in the second half. They have a long way to go but its important to remember its never as bad as it seems.
At receiver, leading returning pass catcher Tavin Richardson was unable to record a reception but seven players combined for 15 grabs. Lynn Bowden led the team with five catches but only managed 17 yards. In his return, Dorian Baker pulled in an impressive grab over the middle but was relatively quiet outside of that.
C.J. Conrad was utilized as a split out receiver and was targeted in more complex ways in the passing game. That’s a good sign even though he only had three catches on the day. David Bouvier recorded his first collegiate touchdown grab in the second quarter.
After a slow start due to an overcrowded box, UK’s offensive line began to flex their muscles as the Cats were just one yard shy of 300. After rushing for over 300 yards three times in 2016, UK never recorded more than 289 yards last year. This was a good start to the season.
The unit only allowed one sack and got plenty of players some live game action. Naasir Watkins and E.J. Price rotated at left tackle and both played very well. George Asafo-Adjei, Drake Jackson, Bunchy Stallings, and Logan Stenberg lived up to the offseason hype. In the second half, both Luke Fortner and Mason Wolfe manned the guard spots during a touchdown drive. This was a great start considering how slow it took this unit to gel last season.
For the day, UK gave up 20 points and 255 yards on 66 plays which comes out as 3.9 yards per play. That’s pretty freaking good. The Chips barely rushed for over 100 yards and averaged just 3.0 yards per carry as they only collected 11 first downs. In his first start, Tony Poljan averaged just 5.1 yards per attempt and was sacked twice. UK kept an inefficient offense inefficient and totally took away the big play threat.
Entering the game, Jonathan Ward stole all the headlines as he was easily CMU’s most productive player returning. For the game, he did next to nothing as he had just 39 total yards on 12 touches.
Kentucky had two linebackers making their very first collegiate start and they both exceeded expectations. Kash Daniel recorded just seven tackles last year but led UK with 11 stops in his first game. The Paintsville native looked very comfortable playing in space and is moving much quicker than in the past. At Sam, Boogie Watson took over and had six tackles with a pass break-up. These two were a significant question marks entering the season after the loss of major contributors, but after just one game you should feel good about where UK stands there.
In the preseason, it was discussed time and again how important the success of Josh Allen and Jordan Jones would be to this football team. UK needs them to play at a high level and they did that on Saturday. Allen recorded 10 tackles with a sack and two non-sack tackles for loss. After recording just six non-sack tackles for loss in his first three seasons, he’s off to a good start as a senior. Kentucky needs all the havoc it can get against the run. At Will, Jordan Jones responded with his best game since he was a sophomore as the Cardinal Mooney alum had eight tackles, one non-sack tackle for loss, and combined with Tymere Dubose for UK’s other sack. He played under control and flashed that speed that we’re all so accustomed to seeing.
In the secondary, UK struggled last season as opponents averaged 7.7 yards per attempt and threw 21 touchdowns. Against non-Power Five competition, UK still gave up over 250 yards passing in each game.
The 2017 unit is off to a much better start as Tony Poljan struggled to find any open receivers all day. Outside of a 34-yard run and catch to Cameron Cole in the first quarter, CMU only had just 103 passing yards on 26 attempts. That’s going to get the job done. I thought Darius West played the best game of his college career as the coaching staff was able to use him closer to the line of scrimmage due to the CMU scheme. The senior recorded seven tackles and never looked lost. Outside of the targeting ejection of Chris Westry, this was a very productive day for the secondary.
At defensive line, UK played seven guys along the front as end Calvin Taylor, Jr., tackle Phil Hoskins, and nose Tymere Dubose each led the group with three tackles. Neither of those three started and Dubose continued his strong play from the Music Bowl as he combined for a sack and a run stop behind the line of scrimmage. Kentucky is going to need more from this group and the starting lineup of Quinton Bohanna, T.J. Carter, and Adrian Middleton needs to find a way to create havoc. Outside of the Chips only touchdown drive, this group more than held their own.
Max Duffy made his debut for Kentucky on Saturday and the 25 year old sophomore from Australia did not disappoint. Duffy had four punts with a 50-yard average and a long that covered 54 yards with two downed inside the 20. Punter U may be back. Grant McKinniss is now the kickoff specialist and his attempts seemed to get very good hangtime as he’s going to get his fair share of touchbacks this season.
In the return department, Kentucky had more highs than lows. Lynn Bowden only averaged 20.4 yards on kick returns while David Bouvier lost UK a ton of yards by not being able to field tricky line drive punts. The punt return efficiency was something UK excelled in last season and it was due to being able to not let punts roll. When able to return, Bouvier did a nice job highlighted by a 21-yard run.
Kentucky is 1-0 and that’s all you can ask for. After struggling against inferior competition and being outgained in two of the three contests last year, UK imposed its will on Saturday as A.J. Rose and Benny Snell both hit triple-digits. The Chips scored all 20 points off of four UK turnovers including one scoop-and-score. The defense was able to force two field goals in three red zone possessions as the Matt House’s unit was fairly dominant in his first game as the coordinator on the sidelines instead of the box.
On offense, the explosiveness returned for Kentucky as the Wildcats recorded eight rushes over 10 yards. Both Rose and Snell had scoring scampers over 50 yards as much needed big play pop for a team that needed some momentum. The quarterback controversy is concerning, but for me, Terry Wilson is still the guy. He won the competition and for the UK offense to be at its best they need his running ability and to hit some throws deep. The biggest takeaway was that if UK finds itself in a two-minute offense or down by 20 or more points, it’s probably better off to put Gunnar Hoak in. In those situations, you’re going to be pass heavy and need a guy who can efficiently compete passes. He has the ability to do that.
In all there was some good and bad. Kentucky’s defense and running game did exactly what it should have done to the MAC competition. If not for the offensive miscues, this would’ve turned into an significant blowout. Kentucky still needs to get more push from its defensive front but it was nice to see the offensive line get off to such a fast start. The wideouts need to do more to help their quarterbacks but their blocking helped spring both of UK’s long touchdown runs. Rose and Snell both provided pop but they were also key cogs in UK’s other long touchdown drives.
Entering week two, we know UK has a very strong running game with a questionable passing game. On defense, they are improved but need more from the defensive line as well as finding a way to force turnovers. Its a long season but UK is in a good spot if it can iron out some of its mistakes.
On to Florida.