John Clay: Kentucky football got exactly what it needed on perfect opening day

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 30, 2014 

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The Wildcat mascot performed his traditional pushup routine after a Kentucky touchdown against Tennessee-Martin on Saturday. It was quite the workout — the Wildcats scored 59 points in their season opener.

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Surely you've had one of those beautiful days where everything is perfect, where the sun is shining and the birds are singing, where the good stuff is better than you had hoped and the not-as-good stuff is the kind of stuff that tends to make things better in the future.

Of late, Kentucky football hasn't had many of those days.

It had one Saturday.

Better still, Kentucky football had one on the best possible day, opening day, the day when the fan base needs reassurance, when the players need confidence, when the coaches need to see what they have to work with and come away thinking, you know, we might have something here.

"I think it was pretty evident today we're better," said Mark Stoops, the head football coach, putting it pretty much perfectly.

Kentucky sure looked better, rolling guarantee-game visitor Tennessee-Martin 59-14 in the dominating way an SEC football team is supposed to roll an unranked FCS team.

Kentucky looked better at quarterback, where the self-assured sophomore Patrick Towles, making his first college start, shook off the rust of a redshirt season and threw for 377 yards.

"I was very pleased with Patrick," Stoops said. "The big thing to me, he was very poised."

Kentucky looked better at running back, where the Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard scored touchdowns the only two times he touched the football.

The first covered 73 yards. The second covered 43 despite Heard tweaking his right ankle. The fact he was wearing a protective boot after the game shouldn't harsh your Big Blue mellow.

"I'm fine," said the junior from Youngstown, Ohio, who confirmed he could have returned if needed. "It's no big deal."

Kentucky looked better at receiver thanks in no small part to new things accomplished by new blood.

Blake Bone's 29-yard touchdown run off a screen pass was not even as impressive as his leaping 36-yard sideline reception later in the second quarter. Dorian Baker caught three balls. Garrett Johnson caught three balls. Those are kids who have yet to take a full week of fall classes.

Ryan Timmons, who played last year as a true freshman, made a 56-yard grab down the left sideline off a Towles delivery that was one of six plays on the afternoon that gained 40-or-more yards. In case you had forgotten, those are known as big plays.

Speaking of big plays, last season Kentucky seemed one of those teams that could not have intercepted a pass if the opposing quarterback had crossed the line of scrimmage and handed the Wildcats defender the football.

Kentucky intercepted three passes in 2013. Kentucky intercepted two the first Saturday of 2014.

"Were you happy when you got those two picks?" asked little Will Stoops when given the task of asking the final question at his father's news conference.

"I was happy, yeah," Mark said with a huge smile.

(See, at heart, the guy really is a secondary coach.)

There were some blemishes. UT-Martin rushed for 183 yards, and when Stoops opted to give his second-team defenders experience they showed why they are second-teamers, but then surely some of that is to be expected.

"Now we have some video of those guys," said defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot.

Every Saturday isn't glorious, of course. Next week's foe, Ohio, increases the degree of difficulty. Florida is better than Ohio. And so on.

Plus, Kentucky was not a good football team last year and it may not be a good football team this year. It's way, way early to cement any stance. Saturday's competition could not be categorized as stiff. And the SEC is consistently ridiculous.

And yet if a football team dares possess any sort of ambition, it needs a feel-good Saturday like this feel-good Saturday, a day when the new guys show this might not be the same old story, that there may be a brand new day ahead. A better day.

"It was important to go out and play well," Stoops said Saturday.

They played that perfectly.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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