It’s been a common trend for Kentucky football to start the season slow out of the gate. After UK found itself tied 14-14 with the University of Toledo at halftime of the 2019 season opener, that same trend reared its ugly head before a much more optimistic second-half led to the Wildcats 38-24 win.
Through seven season openers, terrible starts to the season are one of the few gripes that fans can have against head coach Mark Stoops since he took over at the helm.
Kentucky has actually gone 5-2 in season openers during Stoops tenure, but all of them – outside of the 59-14 drumming against the non-major program Tennesse-Martin back in 2014 – have been unnecessarily close games despite the competition mostly being levels below the Cats.
Infamous losses in 2013 against Western Kentucky (26-35) and in 2016 against Southern Mississippi (35-44) had fans calling for Stoops’ job not even two days into the season. Narrow wins over teams such as Lousiana in 2015 (40-33), the revenge game against Southern Mississippi in 2017 (24-17), Central Michigan in 2018 (35-20), and the most recent game in 2019 against Toledo have always brought early cause for concern. Some of it has been justified, but most of it ends up being reactionary and unnecessary.
Outside of 2013 (Stoops’ first season), Kentucky found a way to turn things around in the early stages of the year. But it’s been those first 30 minutes to open each new season that leave fans shaking their heads and wondering why non-power 5 conference teams are contending with a now-legitimate SEC power. The game against Toledo was no different (tied 14-14 at halftime). Neither were the wins over Lousiana (tied at 33 with under eight minutes left) and Central Michigan (UK trailed 21-20 at halftime) in past seasons.
The good news is that Kentucky always seems to find a way to put things together. The first-half to open a season typically feels more like a “practice” half than anything. It had been over nine months since these guys had played an actual football game that counts. Nerves are always going to be an issue.
But heading into Week 2, Kentucky hasn’t always played up to its potential, either. The Cats only put up 20 points in Week 2 against Ohio in 2014. Florida clapped them in Week 2 of 2016, 45-7. Eastern Kentucky – another non-major program – was able to keep the Kentucky margin of victory to only 27-16 in 2017. However, finally taking down the Gators in 2018 and ending a losing streak that dated back more than three decades proved that Stoops can pull it together after a rough Week 1. Now they just need to stay consistent.
The second-half against Toledo was a glimpse into what this team’s potential might actually be. Terry Wilson and Lynn Bowden Jr. (along with the entire wide receiving core) came to life. The trio of running backs bounced all over the field. The defense held Toledo to only two second-half possessions that went longer than 20 yards.
“I’d like to get off to a faster start,” Stoops said. “We did not execute very clean early in the game [against Toledo]… And those are some things we have to work on, we have to get better at.”
Eastern Michigan, Kentucky’s opponent this Saturday, isn’t exactly a powerhouse program; the Eagles only beat Coastal Carolina by a score of 30-23 in its season opener. The Wildcats should have little issue disposing of the school from the MAC, especially with how high the expectations have been entering the season. Another poor first-half outing would only invoke fear into fans.
While the first and second games of a season should never be used as indicators as to how a team will play once November hits, these games still matter. Florida comes to Lexington in eight days and will surely be looking to avoid a two-game losing streak against the Cats for the first time since the late ’70s. Kentucky has to use the game against EMU to prepare for that matchup. They also need to do so without looking too far ahead to that game against Florida.
Kentucky cannot let EMU become a “trap game” in the first-half.