By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
LEXINGTON — The opener is seemingly the toughest game of the year for most teams and Toledo was no easy task for Kentucky Saturday.
The Wildcats (1-0) scratched and clawed their way to a 38-24 win over the Rockets and it wasn’t pretty. The Wildcats trailed twice in the first half and pieced together a field goal off a Toledo turnover, followed by a touchdown in consecutive fashion to open the second half and overcome one of the better teams in the Mid-American Conference.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops wasn’t apologetic about the hard-fought win and was simply glad his team walked away with a victory in the first of 12 regular-season games.
“(It was a) good to get that one under the belt — good to get a victory,” Stoops said. “You know, there is an awful lot to improve on, that’s for sure. It’s always a good thing when you walk in and you win by 14 points and you’re frustrated in a lot of ways, but that’s okay. We’re striving to be the best we can. We left a lot on that field, but we also did a lot of good things.”
The first-game jitters were evident from top to bottom and even the veterans struggled. Kentucky offensive lineman Logan Stenberg was called for two penalties, including a hands to the face miscue that wiped out a 37-yard pass play from Terry Wilson to Allen Dailey late in the third quarter.
Not even experienced signal caller Wilson was on target at times. He just missed a wide-open Josh Ali on a pass play in the fourth quarter that would have put the icing on the cake. Wilson connected on two pass plays of 30 yards or longer, including a 30-yard strike to Lynn Bowden that set up Kavosiey Smoke’s 40-yard touchdown run that proved to be the clincher in the fourth quarter.
Wilson completed 19 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns, while Kentucky’s backfield duo of Kavosiey Smoke, A.J Rose and Chris Rodriguez combined for 196 yards and two touchdowns.
“We were a little sluggish and a little slow at the start but we picked it up and came together as an offense,” Wilson said. “We just have you pick it up and fix those negatives that we had and just keep playing football.”
As expected, the secondary wasn’t spectacular, especially in the first half and veteran linebacker Chris Oates was ejected for targeting in the third quarter. Oates will miss the first half of next week’s contest against Eastern Michigan. That’s not good news for a Kentucky defense that needs all the experience it can get before the Southeastern Conference opener against Florida in less than two weeks.
The defense allowed just 10 points in the second half and settled into a routine following the first two quarters. Defensive linebacker DeAndre Square and collected 11 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss of six yards and added a sack for a loss of four yards and had a knack for the ball from start to finish.
“We just had to calm down,” Square said. “We knew what we had to do (to win). It wasn’t nothing special. We just had to play hard.”
Maybe more was expected and less was given coming off the team’s best season in more than four decades. Even that team had their struggles early before gaining traction as the season progressed.
“It’s like that early,” Stoops said. “These guys have been working for a long time, all the way back to last winter. All the summer workouts and everything they’ve done, and we’re tired of playing each other. You get to this first game and you just really want — you just want to win and win by a bunch automatically. It’s one play at time. It’s hard for those guys because they want it all and they want it all right now.
“That’s where we have to continue to build our identity and have a toughness about us. We got to have a unity about us. We got to play selfless, and that’s hard because they guys work hard and they want to go out there and be the guy. You understand that.
Stoops hinted last week that openers are a little bit different and the Kentucky coach was right. It’s better to learn from a win than a loss.
“It’s one play at a time,” Stoops said. “When we all take care of our business one play at a time big things will happen. That started the show later in the game.”
Stoops hopes that carries over to the next encounter.
Gametracker: Eastern Michigan at Kentucky, 7:30 p.m., Saturday. TV: ESPNU.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.