BOZICH | Kentucky roars, stumbles, survives Louisiana Lafayette - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Kentucky roars, stumbles, survives Louisiana Lafayette

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Kentucky started fast but had to score in the final minute to beat Louisiana Lafayette. Kentucky started fast but had to score in the final minute to beat Louisiana Lafayette.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – Never mind the stadium renovations. What happened to Kentucky’s renovated football team in the final 1 1/2 quarters?

Does coach Mark Stoops have more work to do than the construction folks who still aren’t finished at Commonwealth Stadium?

That’s what some people will be asking after the Wildcats raced to a 21-0 lead and then staggered to a 40-33 victory over Louisiana Lafayette in Commonwealth Stadium Saturday night.

"We're 1-0," quarterback Patrick Towles said. "And we're moving on. We'll learn from it. We had a really good start early. We didn't stay consistent. But we made plays when we had to. That's really, really encouraging ... we won. We'll take the win. We're never going to take those for granted."

Three thoughts:

1. WHY DID KENTUCKY HAVE TO AVOID AN EPIC MELTDOWN?

For the first 41 minutes, it appeared the story would begin with the Wildcats’ upgraded offense created by new coordinator Shannon Dawson.

The Wildcats led, 33-10, rolling off a string of big plays. Passes. Runs. The works. Patrick Towles looked sharp at quarterback. Boom Williams ran with authority. The offensive line protected. The defense avoided the big play.

Then the offense disappeared. Two punts, an interception and a missed field goal during seven possessions in the second half.

And the defense wobbled. Louisiana Lafayette scored a field goal and three touchdowns and didn't start with better field position than their won 33 yard line in that stretch.

It was a team effort. Even some fans appeared to leave at halftime. The kicking game went sour. Kentucky stopped moving the ball. After passing for 219 yards in the first half, Towles threw for 38 yards in the second half, completing six of 16.

Midway through the third quarter, Kentucky was still averaging better than 9 yards per offensive snap. The Wildcats finished with an average of 7.2.

"I just have to make better throws and be more consistent," Towles said. "We hit a couple early but not as much late as we wanted to. They were giving us really good looks to throw the ball down the field but I've got to be more consistent for sure."

The Wildcats had two chances to increase the pressure on the visitors in the fourth quarter. Didn't happen. Interception, followed by three and out.

Kentucky had to drive 58 yards in the final 4 1/2 minutes to win, getting the decisive touchdown from halfback Mikel Horton. He powered 12 yards to score with 57 seconds to play.

By game’s end, the visitors possessed the football for nearly 37 minutes, outscoring the Wildcats 23-0 in one stretch. Louisiana Lafayette outgained Kentucky, 479-435. They had 10 more first downs than Kentucky's 18. They averaged 5.3 yards per rushing attempt. They had a chance to tie the game on the final play, but linebacker Josh Forrest intercepted a “Hail Mary,” pass.

"It's football," receiver Blake Bone said. "Obviously things are going to happen in a game, obviously not what we planned, not what we expected especially having a big lead at half. I'm just glad we answered back. It showed some character of our offense, you know Pat leading us down the lead and Mikel having a good run at the end and us blocking our tails off."

"That is just how we draw it up," UK coach Mark Stoops said, smiling. "We are an improved football team. I know it didn't always show out there tonight but that's why you play. It's an opener."

With games against South Carolina and Florida, Stoops was already coaching optimism into his guys.

2. BIG PLAYS DRIVE KENTUCKY’S OFFENSIVE NUMBERS

There was the 75-yard blast between the tackles by halfback Boom Williams on Kentucky’s first offensive snap. Touchdown. The Wildcats had told each other all week they were going to score on the first play -- and did. 

"We wanted to set the tone and get some momentum going our way," Williams said. "When you believe and visualize something all week it's kind of in tune to happen ... I seen the hole immediately and the hole was so wide that you could drive a car through it. Like I said, those guys (the line) did a great job. I believe in those guys and they believe in me. And we all believe in Coach Dawson."

There was a 35-yard strike from quarterback Patrick Towles to Garrett Johnson less than nine minutes later. Touchdown.

There was a 37-yard floater by Towles to Jeff Badet early in the second quarter. Touchdown.

Shannon Dawson, UK’s new play caller, summoned from West Virginia, started by calling a bolder, more aggressive game than the man he replaced – Neal Brown, now the head coach at Troy.

The passing game was more vertical. Dawson was more comfortable letting Towles throw deep, especially along the sidelines. Towles distributed the ball to six receivers.

The term in football is Chunk Plays – or plays that generate at least 10 yards. They’re even part of the statistical package. On Saturday, Kentucky had 13 chunk plays against the Rajun Cajuns – six running and seven passing.

As for the renovated Commonwealth Stadium, I can comment primarily on my spot in the press box. It’s about three levels higher than last season. But the view is spectacular, the wireless Internet worked great and there was more room to work.

The clarity on the video boards in each end zone is better than the Sony in my family room. The sound system rocked. The place looked brighter, modernized and energized.

More odds and ends:

Kicker Austin MacGinnis remains as reliable at the tax man. (Or nearly as reliable. Keep reading.) He converted a 44-yard field goal late in the second quarter. That was the 10th consecutive field goal MacGinnis has made, a school record. He bumped the record to 11, with a 24-yarder in the third quarter.

But MacGinnis is not flawless. He proved it late in the third quarter while missing an extra point after Kentucky went ahead, 33-10. It was the first misfire of his career after 44 straight hits. Then he left a 46-yard field goal short.

He’ll be running steps at 6 a.m. (Kidding.)

The Wildcats started three true freshmen – tight end C. J. Conrad, offensive tackle George Asafo-Adjei and cornerback Chris Westry. That’s the most true freshmen to start a season opener for Kentucky since 2000, when the Wildcats opened against Louisville for coach Hal Mumme.

Drew Barker, the back-up quarterback, did not play.

Linebacker Josh Forrest led the Wildcats in tackles last season, and he appears unwilling to surrender that title this season. Forrest remained a force from sideline to sideline. He delivered Kentucky’s first sack and finished with 15 tackles, six more than any of his teammates.

Louisiana Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth tried to max out the national TV coverage for his program. He allowed ESPN’s television cameras into the Rajun Cajuns’ locker room before the game and again at halftime.

I didn’t get an invitation.

3. THE PATH TO 2-0 GOES THROUGH SOUTH CAROLINA

Kentucky visits South Carolina on Saturday for a game that will kickoff at 7:30 p.m. on the SEC Network.

The Gamecocks are a shaky 1-0, outlasting North Carolina, 17-13, in Charlotte Thursday. South Carolina was outgained 440 yards to 394.

As usual, Steve Spurrier was not happy with his quarterback play – with good reason. Connor Mitch completed 9 of 22 passes for 122 yards. Ugh. The Gamecocks survived because they ran for 254 yards and intercepted three North Carolina passes, two in the end zone.

Kentucky defeated South Carolina, 45-38, at Commonwealth Stadium five games into the 2014 season, even though the Wildcats were outgained by 53 yards. UK intercepted three passes and scored the final 21 points.

The Wildcats have lost their last seven games in Columbia, last winning there in 1999. Kentucky’s next home game is Sept. 19 against Florida.

Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.

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