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 at Kroger Field before the Cats settled in and outscored Central Michigan 28-3 after the Chips took a 17-7 lead late in the first half.
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 (20 carries, 125 yards and two touchdowns) and A.J. Rose (eight carries, 104 yards and two touchdowns).
Kentucky, which had 427 total yards to 255 for Central Michigan, racked up 299 yards on the ground.
Wilson completed 11 of his 18 pass attempts for 78 yards with the two picks. When he left in the second quarter with a shoulder injury, 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.
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.
Hoak finished with 50 yards and the score, completing four of nine passes for Kentucky (1-0).
The Cats had some early hiccups offensively, including a midfield turnover for Wilson, which the Chips turned into a 3-0 lead with a 26-yard field goal from Michael Armstrong.
On his first carry of the season, Rose scored the first touchdown of his career, swinging to the left and racing 55 yards to give UK a 7-0 advantage late in the first quarter.
After a third-down targeting call and ejection for UK cornerback Chris Westry, Central Michigan had new life and continued a drive that ended in a 4-yard touchdown run for Kumehnnu Gwilly with six minutes to play in the first half. Westry was one of three players ejected for targeting in the game.
A few seconds later, a third turnover, this time a fumble by wide out Lynn Bowden equaled another touchdown for the Chippewas, this time a 20-yard fumble return for Devonni Reed. Nathan Brisson-Fast forced the miscue.
Snell responded with a 52-yard run to get the Cats within three points, 17-14, with four minutes to go in the first half.
The next UK miscue — its fourth in the first half — was quite costly. After throwing his second pick of the game, starter Terry Wilson headed to the locker room holding his left arm.
Shortly after Wilson exited the field, Central Michigan’s Armstrong hit a 22-yard field goal to give the Chips a 20-14 lead.
In his place, Hoak connected on three of five pass attempts — all three to David Bouvier — including a 24-yard touchdown in the middle of the field to put UK up 21-20 with less than a minute to go in the first half.
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.
It 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.”
Snell added to the Cats’ lead, 28-20, with an 11-yard run out of the wildcat package. It was the first time UK went with a go-to for the offense a year ago and it didn’t come until the 46th play of the game for the Kentucky offense.
Not to be outdone, his roommate, Rose, lunged forward for a 4-yard touchdown of his own out of the wildcat formation. It helped give UK a 35-20 edge with 15 minutes to go.