By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
The University of Kentucky’s 48-10 football win Saturday over FCS opponent Murray State could look like just another day at the office for an outsider looking in. But for UK fans it was anything but. For those fans that have been watching the Wildcats throughout the Mark Stoops era know anytime you play an in-state school – FCS or not – anything can happen. A loss to Western Kentucky early on in Head Coach Mark Stoops career and two close wins versus Eastern Kentucky University in 2015 and 2017 will attest to that.
On a day when UK played well at the beginning – driving down the field on a 9-play 91-yard touchdown drive that was culminated by a 42-yard scramble by quarterback Terry Wilson – they also made key errors in the first half that led to lost opportunities in the red zone and a final score by Murray State right before the end of the half.
In the second half UK dominated the Racers by scoring 31 points before the Murray State offense put up a meaningless touchdown with 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter against the UK second and third string defense.
The big takeaway from this game – other than the continued dominance of the UK run game and an improved passing game from Terry Wilson – was the excellent individual performances we saw from several UK backups.
Backup quarterback Gunnar Hoak came into the game in the second half and promptly moved the Wildcat offense down the field on a five play 80-yard drive that ended in a 23-yard touchdown reception by freshman LiAllen Dailey. Hoak looked like a quarterback that can win games in the SEC and Dailey looked as good as any Wildcat receiver this year on the 23-yard catch and run for the touchdown. Third string quarterback Danny Clark also came in and performed well scoring a touchdown on a 2-yard quarterback keeper that proved to be the Wildcats final score of the game.
We also saw the emergence of freshman Chris Rodriguez at running back. Rodriguez – like Benny Snell – is a punishing runner that makes yards after contact. Plenty of yards after contact. He managed 43 yards on two carries and on one 27-yard run dragged several Murray State defenders almost to the goal line before being tackled at the two-yard line.
Zy’aire Hughes was another player that showed flashes of his ability by scoring on a pass/reverse lateral by Benny Snell to Terry Wilson. Hughes took the lateral from Wilson and – after receiving a crushing block by Benny Snell to seal the edge – carried the ball 43-yards for the score.
Finally, we saw that UK does have a kicking game after all. On kickoffs Grant McKinniss continually put the ball deep into the end zone for no returns by the Racers and Miles Butler knocked through two field goals from 38 and 40 yards. Butler looked to be a very reliable weapon when kicking from 40 yards or less.
All in all the game provided a very good tuneup before UK gets into the meat of their SEC schedule in September and October. With home games against No. 18 Mississippi State and No. 24 South Carolina looming on the horizon next week and a road game against Texas A&M the week after that the Cats have their work cutout for them.
Based on UK’s performance in the first three games it appears that the quality of talent that Mark Stoops and Company have been recruiting over the past several years has finally given UK an edge – physically and mentally – over some their opponents. It was evident that the Murray State players ran out of gas in the second half as UK scored 31 unanswered points to seal the win.
Now the real question is with the next two games being against ranked SEC opponents will the team that gave up 20 points off turnovers to Central Michigan in the season opener show up on Saturday against Mississippi State or will it be the team that physically beat down a ranked Gator team in The Swamp to end the 31 game losing streak to Florida?
Only time will tell but it appears that no matter what happens from here on out the future of UK Football appears to be bright based on some of the backup performances we saw against Murray State on Saturday.