On a Saturday night that should have been a tune-up game for SEC rival Florida, the Kentucky Wildcats had to battle through penalties, turnovers, and a crucial injury to defeat Eastern Michigan 38-17 in Lexington.
Kentucky (2-0) used a strong performance on offense and a decided advantage defensively to help subdue the Eagles (1-1), but the news of the night out of Lexington was the season-ending injury to Wildcat quarterback Terry Wilson.
Late in the third quarter, a scrambling Wilson was horse-collar tackled from behind by an EMU defender. As he was pulled down, Wilson’s foot caught behind him, causing a torn patella tendon.
“I’m very sorry about Terry’s injury,” UK coach Mark Stoops said. “He has done so much for our program over the last two seasons, both in leadership and his production on the field. As a team captain, he will continue to be an important part of our team and we look forward to him returning to the field when he has recovered.”
Wilson, 12-3 as a starter at UK, had gotten off to a red hot start to the 2019 season. In two games this season, Wilson completed 33 of 52 passes (63.5 percent) for 360 yards and two touchdowns. He also had 44 net rushing yards and a TD.
In the 2018 season, he completed 67.2 percent of his passes for 1,889 yards and 11 touchdowns, also running for 547 net yards and four TDs, leading UK to a 10-2 season and a victory in the VRBO Citrus Bowl over Penn State.
It is unclear whether UK can apply to the NCAA for a medical redshirt for Wilson due to injury. An announcement will come soon.
The new Cat signalcaller will be Troy transfer Sawyer Smith. In 2018, Smith (6-3, 219) came in for an injured starter as well and led the Trojans to a 5-2 record and a bowl victory in the Dollar General Bowl, a game in which he was named MVP for throwing for 320 yards and 4 touchdowns in a 42-32 victory over Buffalo.
Smith’s experience is crucial for the Cats as they head into the meat of their SEC schedule, beginning with a visit from No. 11 Florida.
Stoops made it clear the Cats were going on with their season with the expectation of success despite Wilson’s tragic injury.
“We’re going to play to win, no matter who is playing (quarterback). Everybody better get that straight right now,” Stoops said. “We’re sad for Terry and it stinks ... but, believe me, we’re going back to work with the intent to win a football game next week.”
Smith went 5-9 for 76 yards and two touchdowns in relief of Wilson. His first pass as a Wildcat was a 54-yard touchdown strike to Ahmad Wagner. Smith later had a two-yard touchdown pass to Lynn Bowden Jr.
Although Wilson’s injury obviously dampened a Cat victory, there will still some bright spots. Let’s discuss some grades for the Cats.
OFFENSE: B+ The Cats outgained the Eagles 461-386 and held a decided advantage rushing (239-49.) Cat running backs AJ Rose (17 carries, 82 yards, TD) and Kavoisey Smoke (11 carries, 92 yards, TD) had big days for UK. Kentucky also passed for 222 yards and two scores. Bowden (7 catches, 54 yards, TD) and Wagner (3 catches, 71 yards, TD) led the passing attack. Before his injury, Wilson was 14-26 for 114 yards and rushed 8 times for 43 yards and caught a pass for 32 yards from Bowden.
Despite the production, I am hesitant to give the Cats an A due to some really badly-timed penalties on offense and a tough fumble inside the five by Rose that probably cost the Cats at two more scores. UK must clean that up with Florida coming in.
DEFENSE: A- I thought the Cats' defense came to play tonight. I realize that the defense gave up yardage through the air to EMU (337), but understand that the Eagles run a short-yardage timing offense and the Cats did more containing than aggressive coverage of the Eagle receivers in lieu of Florida’s speedy receivers coming to town. I think the Cats were working more on that.
Individually, the Cats got big games from defensive backs Yusef Corker and Brandon Echols (seven tackles each), and linebackers Kash Daniel (five tackles, interception), Josh Paschal (five tackles, two for losses), and DeAndre Square (five tackles.) The Cats also had another sack, three tackles for losses, and an interception.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A The Cats' special teams were again rock solid. Kicker Chance Poore was perfect on extra points and added a field goal from 40 yards. Kickoff specialist Grant McKinniss was six for seven on touchbacks, and punter Max Duffy averaged 43 yards per punt. Bowden also had a great all-purpose game for the Cats with 137 yards of total offense (66 on punt and kick returns).
Well Cat fans, test number one of the 2019 season come to Lexington Saturday night in the form of rival Florida. The Gators will show up ready to play. Can the Cats rally around their new quarterback and continue their march toward another successful season? We will soon find out.
Shane Shackleford is a regional sports columnist from Speedwell, Tenn. You can follow him at KySportsStyle.com Magazine, A Sea of Blue, and local media outlets.