Kentucky football: Grading the Wildcats' Week 1 win over Toledo
The history of Kentucky football hasn’t had a ton of high points. But even more dispiriting is that the high points are often followed by near-inexcusable low points. When Kentucky last won nine games in a season (1984), the Wildcats opened the following season with a 30-26 loss to Mid-American Conference foe Bowling Green that eventually kept UK from being bowl eligible. They didn’t make a bowl for the next nine seasons.
Which meant that the opening game of 2019, following off Kentucky’s 10-win season in 2018, was met with a fair amount of trepidation. There would be no quicker way for the Wildcats to squander momentum than to lose to Toledo. The Rockets are a preseason MAC favorite with a powerful offense and a history of upsetting teams that take them lightly.
After a brutal first half in which Toledo outgained UK by 62 yards and led for most of the time, Kentucky rallied with a solid second half to claim a 38-24 victory. Here’s what was impressive in the Week 1 win — and what wasn’t.
What I liked
Winning, simply winning
Given the good work Mark Stoops that has done in his seven seasons in Lexington, Kentucky simply could not lose this game to start the 2019 season. After a first half in which its defense was ineffective and its offense appeared uninterested, the Wildcats got it together, surrendering only a field goal and a garbage-time touchdown and reeling off 24 points of their own. The W was the thing, and Kentucky nabbed it.
The passing game
Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson had only 56 yards passing at halftime, but in the second half, he was 14 for 19 for 190 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Even when Wilson missed, he was making good decisions and finding open targets. Young receivers like Bryce Oliver (32-yard TD), Ahmad Wagner (40-yard catch and run) and even greybeard Lynn Bowden (6 catches for 77 yards) showed SEC-level talent. Considering that UK was last in the SEC in passing yardage a year ago, this was a welcome change.
Squaring the defense
Kentucky did lose Josh Allen and a ton of other veteran defenders, but the guy who emerged as UK’s newest stand-up player on defense was sophomore linebacker DeAndre Square. Making his second career start, Square had 11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and a fourth-quarter interception. If he can play near that level all the time, Square will help the young defensive backs behind him have an easier time of things.
One player can’t replace Benny Snell, but Kentucky alternated three backs, each of whom showed a unique skill set. A.J. Rose (16 carries, 64 yards, 1 TD) was featured most frequently, but Kavosiey Smoke (7 carries, 78 yards, 1 TD) showed big-play speed on the edge and Chris Rodriguez (5 carries, 34 yards) ran well inside. The three-headed monster combined for 28 carries, 178 yards, and two touchdowns. That will work most every week.
Australian punter Max Duffy was superb, averaging 54 yards on six punts, and also allowing only six return yards on those kicks. Duffy was sharp both on rugby punts and traditional kicks, and backed up Toledo consistently.
What I didn’t like
Kentucky started a pair of cornerbacks with six career tackles, as well as a safety and a nickel back who had basically played on nothing more than special teams and in mop-up situations. It showed early in the game. In the first half, Toledo quarterback Mitchell Guadagni went 7 for 11 for 122 yards, and often could choose whether he wanted to run or throw with equal effectiveness. In the second half (mostly with Guadagni out with an injury), UK held Toledo to 4-for-14 passing for 44 yards. JUCO transfer Brandin Echols particularly looked promising — and Kentucky will need more production from all of the new defensive backs.
From Kentucky’s first touchdown, when running back Chris Rodriguez basically shot-putted the football into the end zone (it was recovered by tight end Justin Rigg), the Wildcats were too casual about ball security. Wilson threw a near-disastrous backward pass that rolled out of bounds. Rodriguez lost another fumble in the fourth quarter and Bowden lost one as well. Four fumbles are too many, and a negative turnover margin is a luxury that Kentucky’s offense won’t be able to afford in SEC play.
UK linebacker Chris Oats had a second-half targeting ejection. It led to a field goal that trimmed UK’s lead to 24-17, and of course, will subject Oats to missing the first half of next week’s game with Eastern Michigan. It’s a harmful penalty that could lead to problems in Week 2 for UK.