NASHVILLE — Maybe all those fans who skipped the Kentucky-Western Kentucky football opener Thursday night knew something. They could watch the inaction on ESPN-P-U.
A punting competition in a two-thirds-empty LP Field did not make for riveting football. The teams combined for almost as many punts (15) as pass completions (16).
But surely, a 14-3 victory eased any apprehension produced by Kentucky's lowest-scoring opening game (both teams' total) since a 10-7 victory over North Carolina in 1977.
UK Coach Joker Phillips relished a chance to win while also amassing plenty of teaching points.
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"Very seldom do you play as bad as we did on offense and win a game," he said.
Kentucky gained 190 yards in total offense. The last time UK won despite such a sputtering offense might be in 1992 when the Cats gained 203 yards in a 13-9 victory over South Carolina.
Star runner Bobby Rainey became only the second WKU back to gain 100 or more yards in six straight games. But UK made him earn his 105 yards on 28 carries and limited the Hilltoppers to 234 total yards.
A still-learning offense means UK must rely on defense, Phillips said.
"Because of experience, the defense has to carry us as we catch up (offensively)," the UK coach said before adding, "it looks like we've got a lot of catching up to do."
For most of the night, Kentucky looked like a team missing its stars of 2010: the departed Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke, Mike Hartline and Chris Matthews.
The announced crowd of 24,599 fell far short of LP Field's listed capacity of 68,798 — and barely bettered the crowd that filled Rupp Arena to watch a group of former UK basketball stars play the John Calipari-coached Dominican Republic National Team).
The crowd would have been a record low for Commonwealth Stadium, which opened in 1973. The record low for Commonwealth is 25,231 (UK vs. Cincinnati on Nov. 11, 1995).
As the clocked neared midnight (EDT), this game could have been declared a figurative pumpkin. With 3:03 left in the third quarter, Ryan Tydlacka kicked his seventh punt, which equalled his high of last season against Mississippi State.
UK's offense started about as slow as Tim Pawlenty's now-defunct presidential campaign. The Cats' only first down in the first quarter came on a penalty, and the offense didn't move the chains until less than 12 minutes remained in the half when new quarterback Morgan Newton hit La'Rod King on an 11-yard pass.
Newton did not complete any of his five passes in the first quarter, not counting the interception he threw. The first-down pass to King was his first completion in a half that saw him connect on four of 11 passes for 28 yards. He finished with seven completions in 18 attempts for 97 yards. He also threw three interceptions.
Phillips lamented the dropped passes that contributed to Newton's stat line. When asked about the wide receivers, he exclaimed, "Did you see what I saw? I'm very disappointed. And we had separation.
"We have to make plays. A couple of big plays were left out there in both halves."
UK's running game was practically nonexistent. The Cats netted seven yards on 15 first-half running attempts and finished with an average gain of less than 3 yards per carry (33 carries, 93 yards).
This against a WKU defense that yielded an average of 380.2 yards and 33.2 points per game last season.
"I was expecting us to put the ball in the end zone a little more," Phillips said. "We have to look a lot sharper."
Kentucky's defense and good fortune contributed to its 7-3 halftime lead. WKU quarterback Kawaun Jakes overthrew a wide open Jack Doyle in the end zone. He also failed to connect on another potential touchdown pass. The Hilltoppers missed a 34-yard field goal.
Meanwhile, a lucky bounce gave Kentucky a chance to score. With WKU ahead 3-0 and UK limited to one first down, a Jakes pass bounced off an unsuspecting fullback Kadeem Jones. Jones did not turn around for the pass, which led to the deflection that a diving Winston Guy intercepted at the WKU 22-yard line.
Two plays and a WKU penalty later, freshman Josh Clemons zipped 14 yards through the right side for a touchdown.
Tydlacka told the tale of the first half. He averaged 3.6 punts last season. He punted five times in the first half, and his average of 45.8 yards per punt kept WKU backed up. He finished with an average of 47.1 yards on seven punts.
In the third quarter, Newton had one completion and Tydlacka had two punts. They finished the game tied with seven punts and seven completions.
Newton heightened expectations with a 34-yard completion to Gene McCaskill on the final play of the third quarter.
Expectations fizzled on the first play of the fourth quarter as defensive back Derrius Brooks outfought McCaskill for a pass inside the WKU 10-yard line.
A fluke play ended one of Kentucky's other legitimate scoring chance. On third-and-6 from the WKU 40 early in the fourth quarter, defensive back Kiante Young deflected Newton's pass for tight end Jordan Aumiller. The ball ricocheted off the umpire into the hands of offensive lineman Stuart Hines, who bobbled it to Western's Chuck Franks.
Kentucky scored the clinching touchdown with 4:35 left. With UK seemingly headed for Tydlacka's eighth punt, Newton scrambled up the middle on a broken play and ran 58 yards.
Two plays later, Newton hit La'Rod King in stride deep in the end zone on a 31-yard touchdown pass.
"Two big plays," said Phillips, who labeled them "gap" plays. "Game-altering plays."