Saturday was a great season-opener for the Kentucky Wildcats. A 45-10 victory, an offensive explosion, and a stingy defense left some in Big Blue Nation dreaming of Atlanta in December.

But let’s be honest — that UL-Monroe team would have been a better match for Kentucky’s 4th-stringers.

Conference play starts Saturday for the Wildcats, and a Missouri team that many pundits put neck-and-neck with UK in the preseason rankings will likely present a much bigger test. For Kentucky, keeping that Game 1 mojo will be key… and here are 5 specific things the ‘Cats should look to repeat if they want their first conference game to be as successful as the first nonconference game.

1. Establish the run again

This is an old-school Kentucky point, but of course, running opens up everything else offensive. While Kentucky’s final totals from last week (34 carries, 145 yards, 4.3 yards per carry) were fairly pedestrian, a miscue on a botched snap and a couple of sacks distort the big picture. Feature backs Chris Rodriguez (6.6 yards per carry), Kavosiey Smoke (5.2 yards per carry) and Michael Drennen (5.3 yards per carry) each were effective gaining positive yardage and keeping the UK offense from falling behind the chains. None of the backs had a negative play in their 27 combined carries. That could be big against a Mizzou defense that had 14 tackles for loss in Week 1.

2. Play-action, particularly on first down

Kentucky had more 50-yard passes in the first half of Saturday’s game (2) than in the past 2 seasons combined. The Wildcats also had as many first-down touchdown passes (2) as they did all of last season. Liam Coen’s impact was immediate and obvious, and it netted big results, particularly on first-down play-action calls. Everybody knows about Rodriguez, and that extra half-second from the play-fake will let Josh Ali and Wan’Dale Robinson get downfield. Mizzou didn’t give up bombs like ULM did in Week 1, but Central Michigan did hit passes for 27, 29, 27, and 39 yards on their way to 301 passing yards. If Levis has time to throw deep, UK can exploit Missouri.

3. Stopping the run

It’s an old coaching line, but running and stopping the run are the most direct ways to win football games. Kentucky held ULM to 17 rushing yards on 43 carries. Even taking out the negative plays, ULM couldn’t run at all on Kentucky (76 total yards gained before sacks, losses, etc). That said, Missouri will be a tougher test. Tyler Badie rushed for 203 yards and Mizzou gained 5.9 yards per carry. Kentucky probably won’t hold the Tigers to 0.4 yards per carry, but they do need to chip away on that 5.9 figure to get a win.

4. Keep sacking the QB

Kentucky had just 15 sacks in 2020, and upping that number was a clear priority for defensive coordinator Brad White. The good news was that the Cats had 6 sacks in the opener, and it wasn’t just one guy. Josh Paschal and JJ Weaver had 1.5 each, but 5 Wildcats were in on the sack parade. Meanwhile, Mizzou allowed just a pair of sacks on QB Connor Bazelak in their opener. If UK can get to him 4 or 5 times, it’ll help keep the Tigers off the scoreboard.

5. Find those playmakers

Kentucky needs to keep getting the ball to playmakers in space. Not only did Will Levis do a good job of finding primary targets Ali and Robinson (5 catches each), but getting players like Smoke, Drennen, and Isaiah Epps involved was a positive development. Defenses will key on Ali and Robinson — Kentucky may need to get creative in key spots to move the chains on the Tigers.