Opening performances can be, in a word, uneven. In any performance, there will be high points that feel wonderful and low points that will make you simply cringe. Sporting events are definitely in this category, especially if you are a fan of the Kentucky Wildcats football program.
Despite some definite high and low spots, the Cats (1-0) found enough good play to win their 2018 season opener over Central Michigan squad 35-20 at Kroger Field Saturday afternoon.
Kentucky found some nice play in all three facets of the game, but at the same time there are some areas of growth needed for the Cats to make that next step to become more than just a flash in the pan in an always loaded SEC.
As with other articles this writer has written after each Wildcat performance, we will examine performances of UK’s offense, defense, and special teams and offer a grade for each.
So without further adieu, let’s breakdown the Cats’ play Saturday.
Offense (B): Overall, the Cats had a decent performance with the football. To be honest, I kind of expected some uneven (there’s that word again) play with the debut of juco transfer Terry Wilson at quarterback. Juco play is a long way from D1 play no matter where you play it. Accordingly, there was some nice moments for Wilson. He definitely has the ability to extend plays with his mobility and has a solid throwing arm. Statistically, Wilson went 11-18 for 78 yards passing and added 38 yards rushing on 9 carries. However, Wilson had 2 interceptions and a fumble. But in the second half, Wilson and the Cat offense looked much more comfortable. Kudos also to reserve QB Gunnar Hoak. The young man stepped up when his team needed a presence in the pocket and moved the Cats to a touchdown on a pass to receiver David Bouvier to give the Cats a 21-20 lead going into the break. On that important drive, Hoak was 3-5 passing. Not too shabby.
But to me, the high point of the Kentucky offense was the running game. The Cats ran the ball for 299 yards on 44 attempts led by the three-headed monster of Benny Snell Jr. (125 yards), AJ Rose (108 yards), and Sihiem King (32 yards). I’ve said to anyone with a pulse for years that for Kentucky to finally be a player in the SEC they had to establish a power ground game. It’s just facts in the SEC. I was very happy to see our offensive line move the line of scrimmage effectively and create holes for our backs to make plays. Very good stuff.
Now for the negatives. If Kentucky puts the ball on the ground like they did against CMU for the rest of the season, things could get really rough. Turnovers happen, but they have to be kept to a minimum. Hopefully, it was just nerves.
The Cats will have to establish a passing game also. I firmly believe the Cats have the receivers and have an All-SEC tight end in CJ Conrad to make plays. Also, with teams loading up the box with 7-8 defenders making the run game tough, UK has to be able to throw the ball enough to keep teams honest. The pieces are there to do this.
Defense (A): I’m awarding this bunch folks. For years the Cats defense has been a liability. No more. The defense flew around all day and held UK in the game when the Chippewas took a 17-7 lead in the second quarter and the “oh no” feelings came out in all UK fans. All three levels of the defense made plays when they had to. I love the depth we finally have too. To win in the SEC, depth is critical. It will get better in the long run, but most definitely the Cats depth is improving. All-American candidate Josh Allen led the Wildcat defense with 11 tackles (six solo), a sack and three tackles for loss. Linebacker Kash Daniel also had 11 tackles. For the game, Kentucky held CMU to 255 yards of offense on a minimal 3.9 yards per play, the lowest total for UK against a D1 opponent since 2014.
Special Teams (A): I’ve said it before and I will say it again. The most important assistant coaching hire coach Mark Stoops has made in Lexington is hiring Dean Hood as special teams coordinator. Games are won or lost on special teams and for years special teams play in Lexington was for the most part atrocious. No longer. The Cats play on punts, punt returns, kickoffs, and kickoff returns have been great. Punter Max Duffy has carried on the run of solid punters in blue following Matt Panton. Duffy, along with the defense, flipped the field several times allowing the Cats to find their footing on offense. The Australian-born Duffy averaged a whopping 54 yards per punt. Nice job.
With the opener out of the way, the Cats' attention turns to a date in the Swamp against Florida. As every SEC fan knows, it’s been 11,000 days since UK beat the Gators (no really, it's’ been 11,000 days). The Cats lost a 28-27 heartbreaker in Lexington last year. In my opinion, the window to beating Florida is as open as it ever has been. Can Kentucky finally close the deal?
Shane Shackleford is a regional sports writer from Speedwell, Tenn. You can follow Shane on Twitter @shack_daddy_1, on Facebook, or you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.