The Kentucky Wildcats opened their 2019 season in fine fashion, breaking a 14-14 at the half and outscoring MAC favorite Toledo 24-10 in the second half to defeat the Rockets 38-24 on Saturday afternoon in the friendly confines of Kroger Field.
The Cats (1-0) had a nice day offensively, outgaining the Rockets (0-1) 422-347 and holding Toledo to 116 yards of total offense in the second half after giving up 231 yards in the first half.
Several Cats had good days in terms of production, but there were also some areas for improvement. After every SEC East team lost on Saturday (looking at you Tennessee) except Georgia and Florida, UK needed to post an opening win in the worst way to stake its claim as a Top 25 team and a threat to win the division.
Let’s assess the Cats performance Saturday, shall we? We will do that in groups of three (my favorite number.)
OFFENSE: B. I felt like the Cats had a solid day on offense behind the maturation of junior quarterback Terry Wilson, the total production of running backs AJ Rose, Kavosiey Smoke, and Christopher Rodriguez, and the emergence of the Wildcat receiver corps.
DEFENSE: B. After starting the game allowing the Rockets to gain 174 yards on their first three drives, the Kentucky defense rose to the occasion and held Toledo to 173 yards on their next 12 drives. As the game went on, the Cats newcomers in both the secondary and linebacker groups seemed to get their footing.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A. Once again, the Cats special teams came up special again. UK made their 116th straight extra point (ninth longest in the nation), made a 46-yard field goal (thank you kicker Chance Poore), averaged 54 yards per punt (thank you punter Max Duffy), and had five of seven kickoffs be touchbacks ( and thank you kicker Grant McKinniss).
Terry Wilson’s Performance. I felt like Wilson’s performance was rock solid. His stat line was great (19-26 for 246 yards, two passing TDs, and 22 yards rushing) but the two stats I was most impressed with were zero turnovers and his brilliant record as UK’s starting signal-caller (11-3).
UK’s Three-Headed Monster at Running Back. There was no way the Cats were going to immediately replace All-Time leading rusher Benny Snell Jr’s production over the last three seasons where the now-Pittsburgh Steelers back had three consecutive 1,000 seasons. Instead, the combination of Rose (16 carries, 64 yards, TD), Smoke (7 carries, 70 yards, TD), and Rodriguez (5 carries, 34 yards) gave the Cats the run production they need to carry on the team’s success.
The Cats' Receivers Produced. For many seasons, if the Cats had one or two receivers that produced, the team was at least competitive. Now with the influx of talent led by star receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. (6 catches, 77 yards) and Ahmad Wagner (3 catches, 57 yards), UK has the ability to spread the ball around the field to a mix of big targets and speedsters that would make any college coach happy. On Saturday, the Cats had six receivers make receptions both in the short game and down the field throws. Nice.
Three Growth Areas
Keep Improving the Pass Rush. Although the Cats did manage to garner four sacks Saturday, the ability to rush the passer, one of the Cats' strong suits in 2018, has to be the Cats' calling card yet again. Toledo was 5-6 on third down to start the game, allowing the Rockets to complete and convert third-down passes. Granted, UK was led by an All-American and Defensive Player of the Year in Josh Allen last season, but the Cats are a much better team defensively when people are flying around, especially in the opponent’s backfield. Look for that area to improve through the season.
Get Off to a Better Start. We have to understand that new defensive coordinator Brad White had to replace his All-American (Allen) and his entire secondary from a 10-win team last season, so there were going to be some growing pains. After giving up 231 yards in the first half, the UK defense held Toledo to a slim 37 yards of offense in the third quarter and 116 in the second half.
Take Care of the Ball. The Cats had four fumbles against the Rockets Saturday, two by Rodriguez and one each from Bowden and Wilson, and turned over one. Two of them killed UK’s momentum on two drives that could have put Toledo away. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran has a motto for his offense -- “the ball is our program” -- which places importance on ball security. Gran believes, and rightly so, “You gotta make sure you protect the ball and you protect the program.” It makes sense to me.
Overall, it was a good opening performance for the Wildcats. Although there were some hiccups due to nerves and execution, the Cats found a way to defeat a solid opponent to get their season off to a good start.
Up next for Kentucky is Eastern Michigan (1-0) Saturday night in Lexington. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. and the game is being televised on the SEC Network Alternate.
Shane Shackleford is a regional sports columnist residing in Speedwell, Tenn. You can follow him at KySportsStyle.com Magazine, A Sea of Blue, and various local media outlets.