LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – As first-game opponents go, Toledo was just about right.
If the Rockets had been any better, Kentucky wouldn’t have scheduled them, and if they’d been any worse, the Wildcats wouldn’t have been pushed to improve.
And Kentucky did work some things out over the course of its 38-24 victory over Toledo.
As long as the program is not going to schedule big-name opponents in season openers – and that’s for the foreseeable future – this is what you’re going to get. A fun afternoon, wonderful weather (hopefully), some decent (but not great) football, and a win.
But the value of that, sports fans, should not be dismissed. Ask them down in Knoxville, where future Kentucky opponent Tennessee fell to Georgia State. Not Georgia, mind you, but Georgia State. Or see how they’re feeling in Columbia, South Carolina, after the Gamecocks fell to North Carolina. Arkansas is breathing a sigh of relief after beating Portland State by only seven.
All around college football, there are coaches saying things like, "the sun will come up tomorrow," or "it’s only one game in a long season" or "I’m sorry, please don’t toilet paper my house."
After watching his team put up 21 points in 12 minutes of game time in the middle of the second half, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops didn’t need to apologize to anyone, and won’t. But he looked at the opener realistically.
"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 OK," Stoops said. "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. ... I’m never going to apologize for winning a football game. I was proud of them and the good things that we did and staying the course and staying patient and imposing our will late in the game. We're a physical football team. I think that started to show. So that was good."
There was good and bad.
If you’re the type who likes to complain, you can find fodder — most of it before halftime. Kentucky converted just one of five first downs in the first half, and Toledo converted five of eight. The Rockets outgained Kentucky in the first half, averaging nearly 5 yards per carry and better than 17 per completion.
After an entire offseason of talk about how Kentucky would replace running back Benny Snell and defensive star Josh Allen, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see their absence felt on third down.
Offensively, on third-and-short plays where Kentucky has made a living off handing the ball to Snell, there was an adjustment period. On defense, when Allen would rise up and make a play on third down, others had to find their legs. In the second half, to some degree, they did. Kentucky still went just three of 11 on third down, though it held Toledo to two of six after halftime.
"Early on, it was frustrating,"Stoops said. "Toledo did a nice job. They were getting us in third and manageable, third and medium, and they were converting. Give them credit. They do a nice job, and we needed to step up. Whether it was well-designed play or them — the quarterback ad libbing, scrambling, running, but they were converting on some of the third downs. I thought that the key early. That gave them an opportunity to keep some drives alive."
Kentucky committed some untimely penalties. There were a pair of lost fumbles, and four total fumbles for the Wildcats. The tight end spot needs work when it comes to blocking. Nothing that can’t be fixed. But also nothing so glaring that it dampens expectations for the season.
Stoops admitted he found himself getting impatient at times on the sidelines.
"I have to talk to myself about that, you know, about staying patient and just managing the game," he said. "As the game goes on, the better team is going to win usually and good things are going to happen. I never felt like — like I said, even during the frustrating pieces today it never felt like there was something we couldn't get fixed and weren't going to get fixed. I talked to the team a lot about that during the week. We have a game plan, but until you go get in there and get hit in the mouth and things happen, the game plan changes. You have to adapt and be confident in the way we're going to adapt and make adjustments and move forward."
On the positive side, UK had eight different receivers catch a pass. Running back Kavosiey Smoke had 78 yards on seven carries, including a 40-yard TD run early in the fourth quarter to give the Wildcats a two-TD cushion. Asim Rose had 74 yards on 14 carries.
The offensive line wasn’t particularly good in the first half but improved in the second and gave quarterback Terry Wilson time all day, though the unit did allow seven tackles for loss.
Wilson bounced the ball to a receiver on one short pass and badly missed an open post route, but was overall efficient, competing 19 of 26 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns. When he misses, everyone notices. Everyone also needs to notice that in the second half, when UK found its rhythm, he was good.
"I feel like I did all right," Wilson said. "There were a few throws that I let get away from me, and that just goes back to fundamentals. I noticed things that I could easily correct, but overall, I feel like I did pretty good. I’m just ready to watch some film and see how I can improve for next week."
Sophomore linebacker DeAndre Square is a player. He had 11 tackles, including a sack, along with an interception.
Wideout Lynn Bowden did not have his best day, but he did climb over a defender to snag a 30-yard reception that set up Smoke’s fourth-quarter TD run, a play that helped break the game open.
"I think that there still being frustration, even though we picked our game up during the second half, just shows how this team has grown," Bowden said. "We have a higher expectation for ourselves. Toledo is a good team and they came out and played a good game against us, but we just need to get back in the film room and come out harder next week."
In short: Just about right.
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