UK Football

Some early ‘jitters,’ but defense and run game get Kentucky back on track

Photo slideshow: Kentucky kicks off season with 35-20 win over CMU

Kentucky beat Central Michigan 35-20 in their season opener Saturday at Kroger Field.
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Kentucky beat Central Michigan 35-20 in their season opener Saturday at Kroger Field.

Kentucky had to overcome some butterflies (and butterfingers) in its season opener before running away with the 35-20 victory over Central Michigan on Saturday.

All 20 of the Chippewas’ points came courtesy of Kentucky turnovers, two interceptions by new quarterback Terry Wilson and two fumbles.

But all of those were in the first half before the Cats settled in and outscored Central Michigan 28-3 after the Chips took a 17-7 lead late in the first half.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of things to get better,” Coach Mark Stoops said after the season opener at Kroger Field in front of reported crowd of 49,138. “It’s a starting point.”

While questions loom about the UK quarterbacks, Kentucky showed it had more than enough on the ground with two 100-yard rushers in Benny Snell and A.J. Rose.

Snell did it despite battling a viral infection that sidelined him on Friday. The junior running back woke up with a temperature of 102 degrees on Saturday morning.

“Under the weather, but that can never stop Benny Snell, though,” said Snell, who finished with 125 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. His touchdown runs were first for 52 yards and then 11 yards on another out of the wildcat package.

UK running back Benny Snell talks about playing sick and his roommate A.J. Rose's big game Saturday in the Cats' opener against Central Michigan.

Rose, Snell’s longtime roommate, opened the UK scoring with a 55-yard run.

“You know, when he broke off that long one in the first half, it was nice watching him, because you saw another gear in a big, strong guy that can run like that,” Stoops said of Rose, who had a career-best 104 yards and two touchdowns. “So it was good to see.”

Kentucky, which had 427 total yards to 255 for Central Michigan, racked up 299 yards on the ground.

They needed all of that to offset some early miscues from quarterback Terry Wilson, who completed 11 of his 18 pass attempts for 78 yards with the two picks.

“I had a little jitters in me,” Wilson said afterward, vowing to improve from game one to game two.

The junior college transfer left late in the second quarter with a stinger and backup Gunnar Hoak came in and led a six-play, 71-yard drive. Hoak found David Bouvier for a 24-yard pass to five the Cats the 21-20 lead with 41 seconds to go in the first half. It was a lead UK wouldn’t relinquish as Kentucky’s defense held Central Michigan to 97 yards in the second half.

Hoak finished with 50 yards and the score, completing four of nine passes for Kentucky (1-0).

UK’s defense was paced by Kash Daniel’s 11 tackles. Josh Allen added 10, including three for loss, and Jordan Jones had eight tackles.

“We knew what we had to do,” Allen said of the defense, which held Central Michigan to just one first down in the third quarter. “We had to come back with that fire, come back with that intensity.”

Kentucky’s coach was glad to see the defense become a difference-maker as the offense figures some things out.

“Really proud of the defensive effort. To overcome 0-4 turnover margin and win says a lot about our football team and how good of a team we have to come back and win by 15,” Stoops said.

After just 15 turnovers in 13 games last season, fourth fewest in the Southeastern Conference, the Cats had four miscues in the first half alone.

“We can’t play worse,” Snell said of the first-half performance by the offense. “We couldn’t have played any type of worse. Every mistake was on us. … I just felt like it was those little first jitters. We got them out.”

Turnovers — or not making turnovers — was a point of emphasis at the start of fall camp for Kentucky, which had a league-worst 28 turnovers in 2016 before turning it around in 2017 behind Stephen Johnson.

Eddie Gran “brought it up the first day, showed us the statistics and it gave us a chance last year to win a lot of games,” fellow offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said.

“We were in games and we were in a position and our kids bought in. So now we’re saying, let’s go ahead and lower that even lower.”

Kentucky is going to have to improve quickly with a trip to Florida looming next week.

The Cats have lost 31 straight to the Gators, including a heart-wrenching loss at Kroger Field a year ago that included a potential game-winning touchdown being negated by a holding call.

UK’s not looking back, just looking forward, though.

“A lot of people say that you’re going to get the most improvement from week one to week two,” Stoops said. “I hope that’s the case with us because I think we have a good football team.”

Next game

Kentucky at Florida

7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)