Football

John Clay: Kentucky survives Cajun match

Kentucky Wildcats running back Mikel Horton (4) went in for the game winning touchdown in the fourth quarter  as Kentucky defeated Louisiana-Lafayette 40-33 on Saturday September 5, 2015 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats running back Mikel Horton (4) went in for the game winning touchdown in the fourth quarter as Kentucky defeated Louisiana-Lafayette 40-33 on Saturday September 5, 2015 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

It was supposed to be a glittering and glorious opening night for Kentucky football.

It wasn't supposed to be so dramatic.

It took Mikel Horton's 12-yard touchdown run with 57 seconds left to save the home-standing Cats from a disastrous outcome on the first night in their impressive new digs as Mark Stoops' team pulled out a 40-33 win over Louisiana-Lafayette in front of a sellout crowd at the "new" Commonwealth Stadium.

But once the buzz and curiosity wore off from the first night in the $120 million, newly renovated stadium and Kentucky's early three-touchdown lead, the Cats gave away a big lead on the way to showing they have a long way to go.

Stoops' third edition led 21-0 early in the second quarter and 27-7 early in the third quarter only to see Louisiana-Lafayette storm back to tie the game 33-33 with 7:36 remaining.

There were a few kinks with the "new" facility. The scoreboard clock refused to work at the beginning of the game, ticking off seconds without stopping. The time had to be kept on the field. Then the play clock stopped working. That, too, had to be kept on the field until later in the first quarter.

There were reports of long lines at the concession stands. Several fans tweeted pictures of the lines or complaints about the waits. UK even answered some of the complaints with Twitter replies saying, "We know we have some work to do."

The same could be said of the team on the field. Kentucky rolled to a 21-0 lead on the strength of big plays. Boom Williams ripped off a 75-yard touchdown run on the Cats' first play from scrimmage. Quarterback Patrick Towles hit Garrett "Juice" Johnson for a 35-yard score, then found Jeff Badet for a 37-yard touchdown early in the second quarter to make it a three-touchdown lead.

New offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson wasn't kidding when he said he wanted to take some vertical shots. Towles took multiple deep shots down both sidelines, hitting more than a few. Towles completed 10 of 18 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. Towles threw his third TD pass of the night later in the quarter.

But once Lafayette got its running game going, the Cats could do little to stop the Ragin' Cajuns. A 56-yard touchdown run by backup tailback Torrey Pierce cut the lead to 33-17 with 1:26 left in the third quarter. Then Pierce scored on a 26-yard run with 11:39 left in the fourth quarter. When backup quarterback Jalen Nixon found Elijah McGuire for a successful two-point conversion, the Kentucky lead was down to 33-25.

When Nixon scored on a 23-yard run himself with 7:36 left, the visitors were within two points. McGuire again scored on the two-point conversion, this time on a run, and the game was tied at 33-33.

The UK defense appeared to wear out in the second half against the mid-major team from Louisiana. The Cats' defensive line was pushed back and it missed tackles. It did right by itself midway through the fourth quarter to force a key three-and-out. Nose tackle Melvin Lewis had the big stop on that drive, a three-yard loss on a second-and-seven which forced the visitors into a third-and-long that ended up in a punt on the possession.

Truth be told, on its game-winning drive, the Cats benefited from a pair of lucky bounces. On fourth-and-one from the Louisiana 49-yard line, Towles fumbled the snap on a sneak but was able to recover for a first down. Two plays later, Louisiana was called for a face mask penalty that moved UK to the 24-yard line. Then the Ragin' Cajuns were called for a holding penalty on a pass play that gave Kentucky a first down at the 14.

Two plays later, Horton bounced off the right side to put the Cats back in front with what was the ultimate game-winner. Though on this night it felt much more like an escape.

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