They could have had the big head. Actually, these Kentucky football Wildcats could have had the huge head what with all the hosannas thrown their way after their streak-snapping, confidence-confirming, Swamp-shaking triumph last Saturday night at Florida.
Instead, Mark Stoops’ Cats got right back to business, pleasing their head coach with a good week of practice in preparation for what could have easily been conditions ripe for a letdown against an FCS opponent.
Instead, the Cats took care of business, ignoring their previous penchant for playing to the level of the competition and methodically manhandling Murray State 48-10 on Saturday at Kroger Field.
“After the Florida game, it was like we’re done with that; we’re moving on to the next game,” said star outside linebacker Josh Allen of the 27-16 win in Gainesville that snapped a 31-year losing streak to the Gators. “We can’t be too happy about it, we’ve got to move on. Just like this week, we’ve got to move on.”
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After all, a pair of tough and important SEC games await the next two home Saturdays. Mississippi State visits Kroger Field next Saturday. South Carolina arrives the following Saturday.
Yet the way Kentucky did what it had to do against Murray State said something positive about the continued progress of the program. This is, after all, the same Kentucky that a year ago trailed another in-state FCS school, Eastern Kentucky, 13-10 at the half before winning 27-16. Those Colonels finished 4-7.
Still trying to find its footing under fourth-year head coach Mitch Stewart, Murray had opened with losses to Southern Illinois (49-10) and FCS 17th-ranked Central Arkansas (26-13). This time, however, Kentucky was never threatened.
Not that it was a start-to-finish cakewalk. The home team led just 7-0 after the first quarter and 17-3 at the half before a decisive third quarter (17-0) put some distance between the Cats and the Racers.
And all the while, Stoops got to play a whole host of young players — not just young players, but quality young players. “We are deeper than we’ve ever been,” said the coach.
“We’re two-deep everywhere,” Allen said. “Three-deep, really.”
Take the defensive line. Just as training camp was set to begin, Stoops announced that defensive tackle Josh Paschal, who had looked so promising last year as a true freshman, was out indefinitely after being diagnosed with a malignant melanoma. (His return is yet to be determined.) Then in the first quarter at Florida, starting sophomore nose guard Quinton Bohanna left the game for what is a nagging ankle injury. (Bohanna was not in uniform Saturday.)
The Cats haven’t missed a beat, thanks to several veterans along with a promising true freshman Marquan McCall. “Marquan just needs to develop,” said UK D-line coach Derrick LeBlanc last week, “and he can be an All-SEC player.”
Take the offensive line. A week before the season opener, starting left tackle Landon Young went down with a torn ACL. While skeptics wondered if UK had a replacement, the Cats have come up with two — redshirt freshman Naasir Watkins and sophomore E.J. Price. After rushing for 303 yards at Florida, the Cats rushed for 245 Saturday.
Another example: The depth at wide receiver — “We’ve got like 20 guys in that room,” said Lynn Bowden, who caught eight balls Saturday — had kept Paducah speedster Zy’Aire Hughes, nicknamed “Fish,” from even touching the ball until the third quarter Saturday when he took a toss from quarterback Terry Wilson, who had taken a forward toss from Benny Snell, and motored 49 yards for a touchdown.
“I knew I was going to score before they called it,” Hughes said.
So is it frustrating being at such crowded position? “Not when we’re winning,” Hughes said.
And the Cats are winning, now 3-0 for just the third time in the last 10 years — 2010 and 2017 being the previous two.
“We like the position we’re in, being 3-0,” Stoops said. “We’re excited to get back to work for a big game coming up.”