Kentucky football: What we liked, didn't like from Wildcats' big victory over Florida
Can it be surprising anymore? Kentucky’s offense will struggle and grind, the defense will rally and overcome, and the Wildcats will overachieve, just like they did Saturday night in The Swamp. The Wildcats’ 2nd consecutive win over the Gators was also the 2nd win in the last 3 tries at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The 26-16 victory was just another brick in the wall of Mark Stoops’ outstanding tenure in Lexington, a tenure which now marks him with the most victories ever for a Kentucky football coach. Now for the takeaways — here’s what we liked and didn’t like from the Wildcats’ win.
Will Levis’ moxie
The senior quarterback spent a week being the 2nd-most discussed quarterback in Saturday’s game. All he did was be the steady hand on the tiller of Kentucky’s win. Levis’ numbers — 13-for-24 for 202 yards — weren’t Earth-shattering. But what really had to impress the 22 NFL scouts in The Swamp was Levis’ ability to bounce back from 3 early sacks and near-constant Florida pressure. Kentucky’s offense is very much a work in progress right now. But Levis took a stitched-together offensive line and a thin stable of running backs and won in The Swamp. He wasn’t just the most productive QB on the field Saturday; he was also the gutsiest.
A season ago, even when Kentucky thrived, dangerous passing games created heart palpitations in the Big Blue Nation. Kentucky did some reorganization, added some new faces and revamped what was a major weakness into a relative strength on Saturday. Keidron Smith’s pick-6 was probably the single biggest play of the game, and the UK secondary shackled Anthony Richardson’s receivers, especially in the 2nd half. Richardson’s final line for the game was 14-for-35 for 143 yards and a pair of picks. UK’s secondary broke up 4 more passes, besides Smith’s interception and score, with 3 breakups for corner Carrington Valentine. Florida isn’t exactly Tennessee or Mississippi State, but this was a big step for UK’s revamped secondary.
The continuing emergence of Key
An SEC road game showed no signs of intimidating outstanding true frosh receiver Dane Key. Key finished with 3 catches for 83 yards. His end-zone grab of a 55-yard bomb from Levis got Kentucky on the scoreboard, and it also set the tone for the rest of the game. Key is probably Kentucky’s best receiving target, and as his experience starts to accrue with his skills, the sky is the limit for the young star.
Special teams not being very special
It was not a banner night for special teams. Long snapper Cade Degraw air-mailed a snap well over punter Colin Goodfellow for a 2nd-quarter safety. His exchange with holder Chance Poore was off after UK’s 2nd touchdown, causing a botched extra point. Kicker Matt Ruffolo joined the party by shanking a 38-yard field-goal attempt that should have sealed the victory. Kentucky’s 10-point win could have easily been a 16-point win with routine special teams performance. It’s a luxury UK probably can’t allow itself consistently in SEC play.
Offensive line struggles
Kentucky’s offensive line is still very much a work in progress. It did show sigificant improvement in the 2nd half, but Kentucky had 2 rushing yards at halftime, and Levis was sacked viciously 3 times in the 1st half. The line did a good job shoring up issues late, paving the way for a solid 14-carry, 80-yard day for Kavosiey Smoke. It’ll be interesting to see how Kentucky schemes the offensive line a) in games with Youngstown State and Northern Illinois and b) when Chris Rodriguez Jr. returns to the UK backfield.
The offensive line issues and the lack of Rodriguez are probably 2 contributing issues, but Kentucky will definitely want to fine-tune its red-zone execution. In 4 red-zone trips against the Gators, the Wildcats came away with 1 touchdown and a pair of field goals. Averaging 3.3 points per red-zone trip is not going to cut it over the course of the SEC schedule. But Kentucky will doubtlessly be happier fixing the issues at 2-0 than otherwise.