LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) -- The preseason magazines were gridlocked in the debate about the team most likely to finish third in the East Division of the Southeastern Conference.
Some were certain Kentucky would slide in behind Georgia and Florida. Others argued Missouri had to be the pick.
The debate was settled where it was supposed to be settled — on the field.
The Wildcats proved it Saturday night by dispatching Missouri, 35-28, at Kroger Field. These aren't the Wildcats of the first eight seasons of the Mark Stoops Era. This Kentucky team has a legitimate offense.
The Wildcats crackled to 520 yards, 341 rushing and 179 passing. Remember, please, that 11 months ago Kentucky wobbled to 145 yards and 10 points against Missouri.
What a difference a new offensive coordinator, quarterback and wide receiver make.
"I thought we did some really good things out there," Stoops said. "It's a shame it had to be that close ... you saw some spurts out there tonight when we were pretty good."
Two turnovers generated the snarl from Stoops, especially a fumble near the goal line by halfback Chris Rodriguez late in the second quarter when the Wildcats were primed to push to a 28-7 halftime lead.
"We can't fumble the football," Stoops said. "We had a chance to really put a fork in them ... I didn't like the fumble because I felt like there were other things on his mind before he crossed the goal line."
A questioner asked Stoops if he realized what a terrific night Rodriguez had?
The head coach looked at the stat sheet.
"Yeah, you're right," he said. "He had (207) yards. I guess he got that (the fumbling) fixed."
Credit Rodriguez with three rushing touchdown and one TD reception. He said he also apologized to his teammates at halftime for the mistake at the goal line.
"I told everybody in the locker room that I should not have fumbled the ball," Rodriguez said. "That's on me."
Credit quarterback Will Levis with 179 passing yards, 101 of them to Wan’Dale Robinson.
"You've got to have some guys who can make big-time plays," Stoops said. "It's nice to have them on our team."
Credit the defense with an interception and forcing five Missouri punts. Throw some extra praise toward linebacker J.J. Weaver for sacking Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak as the Tigers were driving for the tying score in the final two minutes.
"I felt like we were extremely physical," Stoops said.
Kentucky improved to 2-0 and, for most of the game, looked like a team that should be 4-0 when Florida visits Lexington Oct. 2.
They have a thoroughly modern and dynamic offense, although two turnovers, especially a fumble at the goal line, need to be scratched.
They have a reasonably solid defense, although the Wildcats allowed 398 yards.
Kentucky started the game like the Wildcats were going to beat Missouri as completely as they beat Louisiana-Monroe in the season opener.
First drive, 75 yards and a touchdown in barely more than 2 minutes.
Second drive, 80 yards and a touchdown in 5 1/2 minutes.
The Wildcats had more points and yards in two series than they managed in four quarters during a 20-10 loss at Missouri last season.
But there’s a reason some of the wise guys picked Mizzou to finish third in the East. The Tigers scored on their second possession and intercepted a Will Levis pass the third time Kentucky had the ball.
Kentucky pounded its way to a third touchdown, surging ahead, 21-7, when Levis ran for a 3-yard score.
The Wildcats looked primed to deliver the knockout with less than 2 minutes to play in the second quarter. But … halfback Chris Rodriguez fumbled the ball into the end zone from the 2. Missouri took advantage of the second Kentucky turnover by scoring with 4 seconds left in the half, cutting the UK halftime lead to 21-14.
"We can't leave points on the field," Stoops said. "We did score 35. It should have been 45."
In the second half, Kentucky let Missouri tie the game but never go ahead. The Wildcats earned the winning score when Rodriguez rumbled 8 yards with 11:28 to play.
Mark it down as Kentucky’s sixth win in seven seasons against Missouri as the Wildcats continue their push toward the top of the division.
The bottom of the SEC East is nothing to fear. Vanderbilt is Vanderbilt, losing a home game to East Tennessee State by 20 points.
South Carolina huffed and puffed before defeating East Carolina by three Saturday. Tennessee surrendered 41 points, 27 in the second quarter, in a home loss to Pittsburgh.
All three of those teams have first-year coaches. Nine seasons in, Stoops should have a more dynamic team than Vandy, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Kentucky does not have to worry about SEC play for a week. The Wildcats will return to Kroger Field to play Chattanooga at noon Saturday. An FCS program, Chattanooga improved to 1-1 by defeating North Alabama Saturday. Chattanooga lost its season opener to Austin Peay, 30-20.
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