Kentucky stumbled and bumbled through an ugly 28-17 victory over FCS foe Eastern Kentucky in a game that could merely be a repeat of prior early season stumbles under Mark Stoops. On the other hand, it could presage a conceivably arduous season of SEC play for a Kentucky offense that has been meager and a defense that has been uninspiring. If Week 2’s Kentucky team is the real Wildcats, it’s going to be a long season.

Player of the Week: Tayvion Robinson

Kentucky fans probably found themselves wondering where UK’s offense would have been without Robinson, the Virginia Tech transfer turned super senior who had a fairly disappointing 2022 season but elected to return for another year. Robinson finished Saturday’s game with 6 catches for 136 yards and a pair of touchdowns. UK’s offense looked bogged down in the red zone when Robinson wasn’t the target. He also picked up 56 yards on a flip pass to help extend UK’s lead to 2 scores in the 3rd quarter.

Freshman of the Week: Anthony Brown-Stephens

Not much to choose from here, given Stoops’ penchant for not playing freshmen when avoidable. Brown-Stephens, who is seeing the field as a true freshman wide receiver, had a 6-yard reception Saturday. The true frosh has impressed onlookers with his speed and his study habits, which have enabled him to see early snaps despite a wide receiver group including Robinson, Dane Key and Barion Brown. Keep an eye on Brown-Stephens in the weeks to come.

Biggest surprise: 2nd-half ground attack

Kentucky got serious down the stretch offensively with a big day on the ground late. UK rushed the ball 13 times for 91 yards in the 2nd half, and that’s not including a 56-yard “pass” to Robinson that was essentially an end-around. After a 1st half where UK looked stuck in mud, the Wildcats turned to the ground attack to pave the way for a more solid 2nd. Included was Ramon Jefferson, who tore his ACL on his 2nd carry of the season last year. Jefferson’s 3 rushes for 23 yards were both a nice completing-the-circle moment and perhaps a show of things to come should UK look to the veteran whose collegiate lifespan now rivals Bluto Blutarski’s 8-year plan from Animal House.

Biggest concern: Offensive woes continue

There’s no way around it. Kentucky’s offense under Liam Coen was expected to be a strength of the team, and after 2 games, it just hasn’t been. Kentucky has had some success with chunk plays, but it has really struggled to string together extended drives of intermediate gains. Most of UK’s 10 penalties for 70 yards came on the offensive side of the football and frequently put transfer QB Devin Leary in difficult situations. That aside, a tipped pass also turned into an interception for Leary, who himself has had some accuracy issues, particularly on 3rd-down passes.

Kentucky’s final totals (414 yards, 7.1 yards per carry, 243 passing yards) look much better than the team’s reality. SEC opponents won’t give UK essentially a free half of play to stumble and sleepwalk scoreless for 29 minutes and then emerge with an 11-point win.

Developing trend: Sleepy efforts against weaker nonconference foes

A week ago, this column noted Stoops’ success against nonconference opponents (22-1 in his past 23 such games at UK). That said, it hasn’t always been pretty. Even Stoops’ 10-win seasons in Lexington have included games like a 34-23 win over Middle Tennessee and a 28-23 victory over FCS Chattanooga. Week 1’s 44-14 win over Ball State looked a little better on the stat sheet than it did on the field. That’s even more true for an 11-point win over an FCS foe that was coming off a 53-point loss to an unranked Cincinnati squad.

EKU held a 2nd-half lead in this game and held its own against UK by most measures. Some of the issue is style — Stoops favors a slowed-down bend-but-don’t-break manner of play that keeps Kentucky in difficult games in the SEC. It also keeps MAC teams and FCS foes in games in Kroger Field. But some of the issue is a tendency of UK to sleepwalk in a game or 2 each fall.

Key stat: 6 plays for 20-plus-yard gains

Kentucky’s offense has struggled with continuity but has largely survived with chunk plays. Last season, the Wildcats ranked 13th in the SEC in 20-plus-yard plays with just 47 in 13 games (3.6 per game). After 2 weeks, UK has managed 13 such plays. Given Stoops’ grinder identity, UK would probably prefer to get back to 3 yards and a cloud of dust on 3rd and 2. But so far, UK is trending toward more of a big-play identity.

First impression about Akron: Get well quick

Two weeks into the 2023 season, UK is in need of a substantial tuneup. A patchwork offensive line without Kenneth Horsey hasn’t been awful, but it hasn’t been astounding, either. Leary seems to be alternating NFL throws with throws that would get him cut from the CFL. UK’s ground game hasn’t been too bad, but it hasn’t shown the stuff to convert 3rd and short against the Alabamas and Georgias of the world, either.

Unless something changes, Kentucky’s defense will be its calling card again. That is always an iffy situation, because of Kentucky’s philosophical conservatism and soft zone tendencies. Brad White’s defense will keep offenses in front of it and won’t give up a ton of big plays, but it won’t always force a ton of tackles for loss and turnovers.

Akron has struggled offensively and doesn’t seem to run a ton of fluky, wild defensive schemes. Kentucky gets another chance to get things organized before SEC play. That’s a good thing, because Week 2 seemed to indicate that the Wildcats could use a little touching up.