5 things we need to see from UK against Eastern Michigan
Kentucky faces Eastern Michigan on Saturday as a 14.5-point favorite. If that fact requires any motivation, a recent history class could help. Two years ago, Kentucky played Eastern Michigan and the Wildcats were favored by 14.5. UK was outgained 312-228 and outplayed at the line of scrimmage. After a couple of key turnovers on special teams, the game came down to an EMU Hail Mary in the final seconds, which UK intercepted for a too-close-for-comfort 24-20 win. How can UK avoid a repeat? Here are 5 things we need to see from UK on Saturday.
A faster start
In the opener against Toledo, Kentucky kicked off and watched the Rockets go down the field for a touchdown. On UK’s first possession, it was 3-and-out. Before Toledo’s second drive stalled at midfield, the Rockets held a 102-0 total yardage advantage. Similarly, the last time UK played EMU, the game’s first 2 plays were a fumble and an EMU touchdown pass. Kentucky needs to start better or EMU aside, the trio of winnable-but-tough games upcoming (Florida, at Mississippi State, at South Carolina) might get away early.
Kentucky fumbled 4 times against Toledo, losing 2. One was a horrifying bad backward pass from Terry Wilson that luckily trickled out of bounds. Giving up possessions is a luxury UK can’t afford, and it would be the easiest way for EMU to stay in Saturday’s game.
Better defense on the QB run game
Toledo gave Kentucky fits with its QB run game. Mitchell Guadagni rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown before leaving in the 3rd quarter. Kentucky’s pass rush came to life late in the game, but it’s not clear how much of that was defensive improvement and how much was the injury to Guadagni resulting in pocket passer Carter Bradley playing the last quarter and a half. EMU quarterback Mike Glass is a dual-threat guy who was 2nd on the Eagles in rushing last season (412 yards, 6 TDs), despite starting only 3 games. Whether it’s a spy or more zone coverage (a dangerous thing with inexperienced DBs), Kentucky has to contain Glass’ running skills without abandoning pass coverage.
Clarify the running back situation
Kentucky shuttled 3 running backs in and out against Toledo, and each had his moments. Kavosiey Smoke had 78 rushing yards on 7 carries, but his relative lack of playing time suggests his blocking and blitz recognition might be lagging. A.J. Rose was the most balanced back (16 carries, 64 yards), but he seemed to alternate solid runs with getting blown up on 2nd-and-short or 3rd-and-short. Meanwhile, Chris Rodriguez (5 carries, 34 yards) looked like the answer for those short-yardage situations, but he also fumbled twice. Three running backs can work, but Kentucky needs to define the roles a little more solidly in Week 2.
Keep special teams, well, special
The key to Kentucky’s escape 2 years ago over EMU was special teams. UK broke a 14-14 halftime tie on a fumbled punt return by EMU and a blocked punt by UK’s Josh Paschal. Those set up a field goal and a short touchdown run, and that was the difference in the game. Last week, Kentucky’s special teams were pretty sharp, with Max Duffy having a great day punting and freshman kicker Chance Poore nailing a 46-yard field goal. Kentucky might find some hidden yards in the kicking game (or returns from Lynn Bowden or coverage) on Saturday, and those yards might be pivotal.