Kentucky proved Saturday night that a fast start can be enough to beat a slow finish.
The Wildcats came out of the gates like gangbusters against Louisiana-Monroe, jumping to a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter. UK then wheezed its way through the final 21/2 quarters, but the early cushion proved to be enough as Kentucky improved to 4-3 with a 36-13 win that was a lot tougher than the final score indicated.
ULM outgained Kentucky 377-330 and was within two scores (28-13) in the fourth quarter, but a safety and a Randall Burden interception-return touchdown with 7:41 left gave the Cats some breathing room.
Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks knew the potential danger that ULM posed, as the Warhawks nearly knocked off the Cats in 2006. The possibility for a letdown also existed for the Cats after their big win at Auburn last week. Fortunately for Brooks, that letdown didn't come until the second half.
"We got accomplished what we needed to do," Brooks said. "I've got to give Louisiana-Monroe a lot of credit. A win is a win is a win, and it was a pretty good win."
Randall Cobb electrified the crowd of 68,203 with a 73-yard punt return and a scintillating 11-yard TD run, and fullback John Conner also hit the end zone twice, scoring the game's first points on a 1-yard run and adding a 25-yard catch-and-run on a pass from junior quarterback Will Fidler.
Conner provided the first big play of the night, bursting 39 yards off the left side to the ULM 1. Conner then bulled in two plays later to put ahead UK 7-0 at the 11:04 mark.
Then Cobb, like he has so many times already in the 2009 season, took over the game.
He fielded a punt at his own 27, and despite being interfered with, got a couple of key blocks, veered to the left and dashed up the sideline to make it 14-0 with 9:18 remaining in the first quarter.
On Kentucky's next possession, Cobb, operating out of the Wildcat formation, had a 28-yard run before bobbing and weaving through a pack in the middle of the field for his second TD to put the Cats ahead 21-0 with 11 minutes remaining until halftime.
Cobb carried three times for 41 yards, caught four passes for 27 yards and went 2-of-4 passing for 46 yards. Fidler went 8-of-13 passing for 82 yards with a touchdown and interception.
But UK lost much of its sizzle after intermission. After falling behind 28-7, ULM redshirt freshman quarterback Cody Wells and the Warhawks successfully moved the ball against the Wildcats defense the rest of the way. ULM outgained the Cats 134-32 in the third period and closed to within 28-13 on Frank Goodin's 3-yard run with 49 seconds left in the quarter.
"I don't think there was any question that we came out in the third quarter sleepwalking," Brooks said. "It was embarrassing how we played. We were fortunate to not have them score more points probably."
Wells, making his first career start in place of the injured Trey Revell, completed 21 of 44 passes for 267 yards and a touchdown with three interceptions.
ULM also went an alarming 12-of-19 on third-down conversions and kept the ball the entire third period. The Warhawks ran 82 plays compared with UK's 55 and had a nine-minute edge on time of possession.
"Offensively they threw the ball extremely well," Brooks said. "I was very impressed with their young quarterback. Under duress he got hit a lot and still threw the ball well and completed it. Our third-down defense was atrocious, and our third-down offense wasn't much better."
"My hats off to their quarterback," said UK defensive coordinator Steve Brown. "We kept hitting that cat over and over, and he kept getting up and competing."
The game would have been even more interesting if Louisiana-Monroe hadn't left so many points off the board. A bad placement by the holder led to a botched 27-yard field goal in the first quarter, and the Warhawks had the ball at the UK 4 late in the first half but let the clock expire before without any points. ULM also had a nice drive to start the second half, but Radi Jabour misfired on a 34-yard field-goal attempt. The Warhawks also had an extra-point attempt blocked.
"We had chances to get down in the red zone three different times and came away with no points, which hurt us," ULM Coach Charlie Weatherbie said. "You have to get points when you're down there. When you play a team of this caliber, you have to make every chance count, and you can't give them anything. If you give them anything, they take advantage of it."
The Warhawks appeared to be back in business when they picked off Fidler at the ULM 4. But Wells fumbled a snap near the goal line and fell on it in the end zone, resulting in a safety and a 30-13 Kentucky lead with 11:57 remaining. Burden then picked off Wells on ULM's next series and took it to 50 yards up the left sideline for the game's final points.
"We jumped on them early, and then as the first half progressed, we got worse and worse," said UK defensive tackle Corey Peters. "And then we came out flat and didn't play well in the third quarter. But that safety kind of woke us back up, and we came out more aggressive on defense and made some big plays."
"The way we started the game turned out to be real important because they made a push, and we had to hold on," UK defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said. "That third quarter they showed us they were in it for the long haul. They gave us a pretty good fight, but thankfully we were able to come out of there with the win."