John Clay

On a day Tennessee and other SEC members sank, Kentucky kept its head above water

Impressions from Kentucky football’s season-opening win over Toledo

Lexington Herald-Leader sports columnist John Clay and beat writer Josh Moore share their impressions of Kentucky football's 38-24 win over Toledo on Saturday at Kroger Field.
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Lexington Herald-Leader sports columnist John Clay and beat writer Josh Moore share their impressions of Kentucky football's 38-24 win over Toledo on Saturday at Kroger Field.

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You think you have it bad, you could be Tennessee.

Oh my goodness, Tennessee.

You knew it might be a bad day for our friends south of the border when a boat in the “Vol Navy” burned and sank on the Tennessee River outside Neyland Stadium. Then they played the football game and the Volunteers crashed and burned, losing 38-30 to Georgia State.

That’s the same Georgia State that finished 2-10 last season.

That’s the same Georgia State that has only been playing college football since 2010 when former Kentucky head coach Bill Curry started the program.

Longtime Knoxville News Sentinel columnist John Adams proclaimed it “the worst loss in the modern era of UT football.”

A Twitter-wise guy posted that Smokey, the Bluetick Coonhound and Tennessee mascot, had entered the NCAA transfer portal.

Meanwhile, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is mailing a handwritten thank-you note to Bo Nix. Were not for Auburn’s true freshman quarterback completing a 26-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left to beat Oregon 27-21, Saturday would have been a horrible day for the SEC.

Instead, Saturday was a really bad day for the SEC. Ole Miss lost 15-10 at Memphis. South Carolina lost 24-20 to North Carolina, which went 2-9 last year. (Welcome back, Mack Brown.) Missouri lost 37-31 at Wyoming. Remember, the SEC’s motto is “It Just Means More,” which Georgia State Coach Shawn Elliott mocked Saturday. “It just means more to us today,” Elliott said.

Kentucky won Saturday. Thankfully, Kentucky won. The Cats trailed Toledo 7-0 early. The halftime score was 14-14. But UK improved to 7-3 under Mark Stoops as head coach when dead even at the half, settling into a second-half groove to defeat the Rockets 38-24 and go 1-0 in 2019.

The bad: Toledo converted seven of 16 third downs, including five of its first seven. UK was 3-for-11 on third down. The Cats were 0-for-2 on third-and-one. A pair of running backs lost fumbles. Stoops thought at times his young players were impatient.

The good: UK’s receivers made tough catches. Redshirt freshman Kavosiey Smoke scored on a 40-yard run. DeAndre Square was a menace on defense. Juco transfer safety Brandin Echols was credited with three pass breakups. Redshirt freshman Chance Poore kicked a 46-yard field goal.

And Kentucky wasn’t South Carolina or Ole Miss or Missouri or — yikes — Tennessee, all victims of anything-can-happen-in-the-opener syndrome. Avoiding embarrassment is the name of the first game. And after 10-3 glory in 2018, the Cats didn’t trip and fall to start 2019.

That hasn’t always been the case. After finishing 10-1 under Fran Curci in 1977, UK opened 1978 by tying South Carolina 14-14. After finishing 9-3 under Jerry Claiborne in 1984, UK opened 1985 with a 30-26 loss to Bowling Green. After going to the Outback Bowl under Hal Mumme in 1998, UK opened 1999 with a 56-28 loss to Louisville.

Two areas will make or break this Kentucky football season. One is quarterback play. (That’s true more seasons than not.) The other is the development of a young defense.

Saturday, UK quarterback Terry Wilson completed 19 of 26 passes and did not throw an interception. Yes, he missed some throws. He missed a couple badly. In his last seven games, however, Wilson has completed 69.4 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and three interceptions.

(By the way, Eastern Michigan, UK’s opponent at Kroger Field this Saturday, opened 2019 with a 30-23 win at Coastal Carolina on Saturday despite being outgained 378-291. The Eagles intercepted four CCU passes.)

Stoops’ defense allowed touchdowns on two of Toledo’s first three Saturday possessions. After that, the Rockets scored 10 points on 12 possessions. And Toledo is a team that averaged 40.4 points per game a season ago. Not bad.

“It’s always a good thing,” said Stoops, “when you walk in and you win by 14 points and you’re frustrated in a lot of ways.”

And Saturday it was a good thing to not be Tennessee.

Kentucky football offensive coordinator Eddie Gran talks about the play of quarterback Terry Wilson and UK’s receivers in the Wildcats’ 38-24 win over Toledo in the 2019 opener at Kroger Field.

Next game

Eastern Michigan at Kentucky

7:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU or SEC Alternate)

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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