NASHVILLE — When the original Air Raid launched in 1997, it produced fireworks that electrified Commonwealth Stadium. Sixteen years later, with former Mumme-era wide receiver Neal Brown bringing the offense back to UK, the launch of Air Raid 2.0 could not produce a similar liftoff.
Western Kentucky of the Sun Belt Conference beat Kentucky of the Southeastern Conference on Saturday night for the second straight year. A season ago in Lexington, it took the Hilltoppers a trick play in overtime to do the deed, but Saturday night at LP Field it felt decisive. With new Hilltoppers Coach Bobby Petrino doing his usual masterful job of play calling, the Hilltoppers whipped the Cats 35-26 in Mark Stoops' debut as UK head man.
"Rough day, not very pleased with the way we played," Stoops said. "I thought we'd play better than that. They controlled us at the line of scrimmage."
In Hal Mumme's first game as Kentucky coach, UK shellshocked Louisville with 21 points in the first quarter. Tim Couch threw for 398 yards and four touchdowns. UK, coming off the dispiriting end of the Bill Curry years, thumped U of L 38-24 and energized its fan base.
This time, the Cats were again coming off a demoralizing end to a coaching tenure, that of Joker Phillips. And UK was again facing an intrastate foe in Western.
But the similarities stopped there. Though it ran for 216 yards, Kentucky threw for only 203 yards, and had only 78 yards passing with run-oriented quarterback Jalen Whitlow starting the game and playing the first three quarters.
Inserted into the game in the fourth quarter with UK behind 35-17, Maxwell Smith completed eight of 13 passes for 125 yards and a 34-yard touchdown pass to Demarco Robinson.
"It was difficult," Smith said of not starting. "I was just waiting for my number to be called."
Kentucky came to LP Field not having publicly announced its starting quarterback. The Cats are leaving Nashville with, at best, no more definition at the spot than when they got to Music City. At worst, the new Kentucky coaching staff is already faced with something of a quarterback controversy.
"We need to continue to look at it," Stoops said of the quarterback position. "I thought Jalen did some good things at times, but, obviously, I've got to look at the film and see if it was him or the other players around him that hurt us at times."
Whitlow did have some good moments.
He ran for a net-75 yards, and his 50-yard scamper on a called quarterback run play set up a Kentucky touchdown.
The question about the sophomore from Prattville, Ala., has always been whether he can throw consistently enough to make an Air Raid attack go.
Whitlow had a couple of nice throws. In the third quarter, he hit Robinson on a deep out for a 24-yard gain with a deft pass. Another time, on a third-and-11, he used his mobility to keep a play alive and then found Javess Blue for a 16-yard gain.
Problem was, with Whitlow in the game, there were too few big plays in the passing game. He finished 10-for-15 for 78 yards but was fortunate that Western defenders dropped three passes that could have easily been intercepted.
Smith entered the game in the final quarter with UK down by 18 points. A year ago, the California product started UK's first three games and threw for 966 yards. After throwing four interceptions in UK's loss to WKU in Commonwealth Stadium, injuries removed him from the rest of the Kentucky season.
Back in game action last night, Smith looked good.
He led UK on two scoring drives, a 30-yard field goal by Joe Mansour and a 34-yard touchdown pass to Robinson.
Perhaps most significantly, Smith — who has been knocked out by injury the past two seasons at UK — absorbed two sacks and was able to get up and keep playing.
Asked if he wished he'd put Smith in earlier, Brown said that was "ifs, ands and buts. Jalen played better in camp and beat him out."
After his first game as a head man, Stoops at least sounded like the decision on who will be Kentucky's starting quarterback is one he will revisit.
"Obviously, Max came in and looked very good and moved the ball for us," Stoops said. "So, that's a position we need to continue to look at."
What we do know after one game of Air Raid 2.0, at least the passing component of the offense, is there's all but nowhere to go but up.