It was a beautiful day for a college football game in Lexington with the Kentucky Wildcats taking the field to face a pesky Group of Five program. A crowd of 54,610 showed up for the noon kickoff at The Kroge to see the Wildcats earn their way to a 38-24 victory.
There were plenty of first game jitters and sluggishness to work through. A defense with a bunch of players making their first career start struggled with Toledo’s spread scheme early before settling down and playing assignment football. Kentucky’s passing game was crisp and efficient while the ground game provided plenty of explosive runs. However, third down inefficiency allowed UK to run just 25 plays in the first half and had a big part in why the Wildcats never took the lead until the third quarter.
In the end, Kentucky pulled away with the talent and depth advantages showing up in the second half on a hot August day. The Wildcats did some good stuff, but there are plenty of things to work on with a 1-0 record. Not every SEC East team can say that.
Kentucky rolled up 422 yards in 65 plays with a 6.5 yards per play average with five touchdowns and one field goal. That yard per play average would’ve ranked fifth in the SEC last season. However, it was the passing game that drove the Wildcats to 38 points.
In his 14th start, Terry Wilson had his best passing game as a Kentucky Wildcat. The junior from Oklahoma City completed 73 percent of his 26 passes with a robust 9.5 yards per pass attempt average. The dual-threat quarterback tossed for 246 yards and two touchdowns while looking very comfortable running Eddie Gran’s offense. We saw the quarterback look comfortable in the pocket, go through progressions, and deliver the ball accurately in the gaps of Toledo’s zone coverage.
Despite the excellence in the passing department, there were some things that need to be fixed. There appeared to be multiple zone reads where Wilson should’ve pulled the football for a keeper. Instead, he waited too long to make a decision and that allowed Toledo to get a few tackles for loss. On the long fourth quarter touchdown drive, Terry Wilson missed two throws before delivering a strike on third down to Allen Dailey, Jr. There wasn’t much in the rushing department, but Terry Touchdown flashed some evolution today.
At receiver, there were a lot of players who stood out. Lynn Bowden, Jr. was his reliable self collecting 77 yards on six grabs with one crazy snag to setup a fourth quarter touchdown.
It wasn’t just Bowden contributing and that’s a great sign. Ahmad Wagner drew two more pass interference penalties including three receptions and some impressive yards after catch yards. Allen Dailey, Jr. had two grabs that would move the chains on third down. Josh Ali recorded his second career touchdown reception and Keaton Upshaw made two grabs in his first college game. But the play of the game came from spring game MVP Bryce Oliver.
The redshirt freshman from Fort Lauderdale made an outstanding grab on a go-route from the slot to give Kentucky a double-digit lead in the middle of third quarter. This reception was just one of many competitive catches made by UK’s wideouts today and was a great sight for a passing game that has had all kinds of struggles in recent years.
On the ground, Kentucky’s three backs had 28 carries for 176 yards and two (should’ve technically been three) touchdowns. This group averaged 6.3 yards per carry and pitched in four grabs for 28 yards, but the star of the day was redshirt freshman Kavosiey Smoke.
The former high three-star recruit had 78 yards on seven carries and showed the burst we all thought he had. He looked like UK’s best back for most of the afternoon. A.J. Rose flashed some big play ability, but took way too many negative plays. Chris Rodriguez, Jr. had two fumbles and that cannot happen for what should be your short-yardage back.
On the offensive line, Kentucky got solid play from its starters in addition to Mason Wolfe and Naasir Watkins off the bench. At times this group struggled with Toledo’s quickness on the line of scrimmage, but dominated in pass protection giving up just one sack. After allowing a ghastly sack rate of 8.7 percent last season, that was good sign starting off the 2019 season.
Kentucky allowed 347 yards on 64 plays and that was good for 5.4 yards per play. That yards per play number would’ve ranked eighth in the SEC. After a slow start, the pass defense was excellent allowing just 11 completions and 6.6 yards per attempt. However, Toledo had some really nice success on the ground rushing for 181 yards and averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
In the trenches, Kentucky’s defensive line got off to a slow start early as they adjusted to Toledo’s spread scheme. After settling in, UK got a combined five tackles and two sacks from Calvin Taylor, Jr. and T.J. Carter. UK needs both of them to cause havoc.
On the edge, UK got a big performance from redshirt sophomore Joshua Paschal at the Jack linebacker spot. The former blue-chipper who just kicked cancer’s ass made two huge plays in the third quarter to swing the game in Kentucky’s favor. Paschal forced a fumble that led to a Kentucky field goal and the last lead change of the game. Next possession, his second down sack got Toledo behind the chains and got all the momentum in Kentucky’s favor. A few plays later Kentucky scored a touchdown to go up double-digits and never looked back.
At Sam linebacker, Boogie Watson’s edge rushes really caused Toledo’s tackles some issues and he created multiple pressures to help the pass defense. Off the bench, Jordan Wright chipped in six tackles and a run stuff. You need these spots to produce and the group did that after the slow start.
On the inside, DeAndre Square had the best game of his UK career. The sophomore Will linebacker led the team with 11 tackles and had a crazy good interception in the fourth quarter.
The Detroit native balled out in his second career start and closed down a lot of running lanes with great closing speed. Once again, Kentucky has a ballplayer at the Will spot. Chris Oats played very well and recorded five tackles before a questionable targeting penalty. He just moves different than the rest of UK’s linebackers. Kash Daniel collected four tackles, a run stuff, and looked much more comfortable in pass coverage. Jamin Davis remains a reliable piece off the bench. Kentucky is in good hands in the middle.
In the secondary, it was a rough start for UK’s new guys. Jamari Brown got caught peeking in coverage and that allowed a big gain on Toledo’s first drive that setup a touchdown. Cedrick Dort, Jr. had his struggles on the other side and that led to Brandin Echols getting a ton of snaps.
The junior college transfer missed a significant portion of fall camp due to a hamstring issue, but he looked like UK’s best defensive back yesterday. The field corner collected three pass break-ups and a near interception in the fourth quarter. Look for him to become a starter next week. Despite the rough start, Jamari Brown bounced back in the second half with two pass break-ups as UK put the clamps on Toledo’s passing game.
At safety, Yusuf Corker looked liked he belonged at free safety and the redshirt sophomore had seven tackles and big fumble recovery that led to points. Jordan Griffin was solid while starting nickel Tyrell Ajian did not crack the stat sheet. It is now clear that true freshman Taj Dodson is UK’s sixth defensive back and will be used in dime defense. He played a few snaps on Saturday and the high three-star recruit will not be redshirting.
It would be very easy to make the case for junior Max Duffy to be the star of the game. The Australian averaged 54 yards per punt and twice pinned Toledo inside the 20. Chance Poore was perfect on his extra points and easily drilled a 46-yard field goal in the third quarter. In seven kickoffs, Grant McKinniss had a touchback rate of 71.4 percent and remains a very solid kickoff specialist.
In the return game, it wasn’t Lynn Bowden, Jr.’s greatest day. The star junior averaged just 21 yards on two kickoff returns and made a very bad decision fielding a rolling punt inside UK’s five. We finally found out who Bowden’s backup returner will be and Josh Ali looked very competent in his only punt return.
Toledo had to win the special teams battle to pull the upset and they did not do that.
On a day where three SEC East teams suffered upsets as double-digit favorites, hindsight tells us that Kentucky did a great job by just handling their business. Facing the most consistent program in the MAC, the Wildcats were hit with a couple of punches early but did not wilter.
After falling behind 7-0 and 14-7, Kentucky quickly struck back despite some significant offensive inefficiencies. Third downs were a huge thorn in UK’s side on Saturday with the Wildcats converting just 27.3 percent of their 11 third downs. That is not a winning formula. You throw it the ineffectiveness of the short-yardage running game and Eddie Gran will have plenty to grab his group’s attention on offense.
On the other side of the football, we all knew the growing pains in the secondary were coming and they showed up early. However, at the beginning of the game the Wildcats weren’t getting the playmaking needed from the defensive front and that changed once the new look defense settled in. By the end of the day, Kentucky totally shut down the passing game, but gave up 73 rushing yards to a dual-threat quarterback. That’s worrisome and Eastern Michigan is bringing in their own scrambling quarterback next week. Those issues must be fixed quickly.
Despite the slow start, Kentucky bounced back and put together the best opening game performance of the Mark Stoops era. UK handled a good Toledo club and shutdown one of the nation’s top scoring offenses in 2018 for the most of the second half. The offense consistently produced big plays and that allowed UK to stretch the lead.
The Wildcats accomplished the goal in Week One and heads to Week Two with a winning record and plenty stuff to improve on.