NASHVILLE — Western Kentucky was out to prove an overtime victory in Lexington last season wasn't a fluke.
Despite a new coach and a new quarterback, the Hilltoppers did just that, topping Kentucky 35-26 in front of 47,623 at LP Field.
They did it in a much more convincing fashion than last season's overtime victory in which the Hilltoppers needed a trick play to win it.
"We're all down," quarterback Maxwell Smith said. "We're all frustrated, but plain and simple, they were better than us today. Plain and simple, they beat us in every aspect."
Mark Stoops, in his first game as a head coach, agreed with his backup quarterback.
"Rough day," he said. "Not very pleased with the way we played. I thought we'd play better than that. They controlled us at the line of scrimmage."
His counterpart, Bobby Petrino, back in coaching after a year of scandal-forced exile, remained unbeaten in season openers at 9-0, including five wins in openers over UK.
The Cats, with their own new coach and a set of old quarterbacks, struggled to find any kind of groove on either side of the ball. They learned that the "process" Stoops talks about is going to take longer than they or UK fans had hoped.
The Cats were outgained 487-419 including 271-203 through the air, but most of Kentucky's passing yardage came in the fourth quarter behind Smith, who came in for Jalen Whitlow after an anemic third quarter.
First-year WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty was efficient, completing 27 of 34 for 271 yards and one touchdown, a 9-yard pass to Mitchell Henry that gave the Toppers a 28-17 lead late in the third quarter.
"He did an unbelievable job," Petrino said of Doughty. "He came out and really understood the game plan. He was quick getting the ball out of his hand and very, very accurate, so we got yards early after the catch, and he just continued to execute and make good decisions."
Former Madison Central star Keshawn Simpson led the Toppers with two touchdown runs, both 3 yards and both in the first half. Antonio Andrews led all rushers with 99 yards and a touchdown. Leon Allen added 92 yards and a score of his own.
"We weren't solid against the run," UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "It wasn't just the D-line, it was the linebackers and the secondary. We just didn't have very good leverage on the football and we didn't play well enough."
Senior linebacker Avery Williamson, who led UK with eight tackles, said the defense didn't do its part.
"We've got be more aggressive, no question," he said. "We've got to make tackles. We did what we have to do, but some guys had some first-game jitters."
The jitters weren't just on that side of the ball.
"We've got to be better on first downs," UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "We got behind on the chains and we had a hard time overcoming that."
Kentucky (0-1) also will have to continue to look at its quarterback position. Whitlow was able to do some things well, but not others. He ran for 75 yards, but most of that came on a 50-yard spring in the second quarter. The sophomore ran for one touchdown, a 19-yarder, the Cats' first TD of the night.
More than 120 of the Cats' passing yards came in the final quarter when Smith came in to relieve Whitlow, who finished the night with 78 passing yards on 10 completions (in 15 tries).
Smith finished the game with 125 yards passing, completing eight of 13 and one touchdown on a pretty 35-yarder to Demarco Robinson on the left side. But a missed extra point by Joe Mansour killed any slight chance of a Cats comeback.
Stoops liked that his team didn't quit fighting, but he knows it has a lot of work to do.
"We have good kids," he said. "They mean well. We've just got to coach them. Like I said, we've got to coach better and we've got to play better and we'll improve."
Kentucky fell behind 14-3 to open the second quarter when Andrews' 3-yard run capped a 12-play, 80-yard drive that ate up five minutes.
Andrews had 87 rushing yards in the first half. Simpson had a productive first half that included two separate 3-yard touchdown runs. His first opened the scoring for WKU.
A UK team that forced just 13 turnovers last season, matching the fewest in 30 years for the Cats, forced two fumbles in the first half.
The first one, tipped by Khalid Henderson and recovered by Avery Williamson, set up the Cats' first points of the season, a 22-yard field goal for Mansour.
Whitlow got UK back within four points, 14-10, early in the second quarter when he took a designed quarterback run down the right sideline and scampered into the end zone on his tiptoes.
WKU (1-0) struck again five minutes later with Simpson's second 3-yard scoring run, this time up the middle. It was a gift courtesy of a roughing-the-passer penalty by UK's Mike Douglas on third-and-2 at midfield.
Another Toppers miscue helped set up another Kentucky score, this one a 5-yard run by Jonathan George, who had three TDs last season in the Cats' loss to Western Kentucky at Commonwealth Stadium.
At halftime, Petrino seemed to find a spot he wanted to exploit in the center of Kentucky's defense and he called five straight running plays for Allen, mostly up the middle, that helped set up a 9-yard pass from Doughty to Henry that gave Western Kentucky a 28-17 lead.
It got worse from there for the Kentucky defense when Allen's 14-yard touchdown run on the edge capped a 5-play, 60-yard drive and gave Western Kentucky a 35-17 lead.
It was yet another play that will send UK back to the drawing board.
"What disappointed me was things that we were in position to stop, had worked — we'd see it, the same look — and did not play it right and did not play it well," Stoops said. "That was very discouraging. ... I was discouraged at the base fundamental things that we were in good position, good calls to stop and didn't stop them."