All through Kentucky’s preseason camp, Mark Stoops indicated he hoped UK could find a way to get both Terry Wilson and Gunnar Hoak into the 2018 season opener with Central Michigan.
On a steamy September Saturday at Kroger Field, Stoops and UK accomplished that mission.
Yet not in a way that anyone with allegiance to Kentucky would have wished.
The good news is that UK opened its season with a 35-20 victory over Central Michigan before an announced crowd of 49,138 at Kroger Field.
UK owed its victory to a stingy defensive effort sparked by linebackers Josh Allen (10 tackles, three tackles for loss) and Kash Daniel (team-high 11 tackles) and a one-two rushing punch of Benny Snell (125 yards and two touchdowns) and A.J. Rose (104 yards and two TDs) that Central Michigan could not stop.
The bad news was the Wildcats’ quarterback script did not go according to plan.
As expected, Wilson, the junior-college transfer who began his college career at Oregon, started.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound redshirt sophomore, however, turned the ball over three times in a nightmarish first half and was knocked from the game just before halftime with a bruised right shoulder.
“I got off to a slow start,” Wilson said. “I had a little jitter in me.”
Hoak, the 6-4, 206-pound redshirt sophomore who found out only days ago that he had lost the Kentucky starting job to Wilson, was pressed into action with only 1:01 left in the first half and an incredibly fortunate UK down “only” 20-14.
Playing in his first college game ever, Hoak proceeded to direct Kentucky on a 71-yard TD drive, connecting three times with wide-out David Bouvier. Their last connection went for a 24-yard touchdown pass that — amazingly for a team that committed four total turnovers in the first half — put the Cats ahead 21-20 at halftime.
“I didn’t see (Bouvier) get in the end zone because I got hit,” Hoak said. “But it was a great, great feeling. Heck, it was a great feeling for me just to get hit. I hadn’t been hit since high school, it had been almost three years.”
Allowed to start half two, Hoak could not replicate the magic. So Wilson returned and led the two TD drives that allowed Kentucky to salt the game away.
For the game, Wilson finished 11-of-18 passing for 78 yards with the two picks. He also ran nine times for 38 yards with the lost fumble.
Hoak wound up 4-of-9 passing for 50 yards and the TD.
Not shockingly for a program that entered the season without a quarterback who had ever played in a college game, Kentucky ended its season opener with a whole lot of room for growth at QB.
With a trip to Florida next week eminent, UK needs answers quickly.
Afterward, Darin Hinshaw, the Kentucky quarterbacks coach, stated the obvious. “We can’t turn the ball over like we did in the first half,” Hinshaw said. “We put our defense in horrible situations. We put our team in horrible situations.”
Wilson’s fumble, Hinshaw said, was caused by a protective sleeve the QB was wearing on his arm. “The ball slipped off the sleeve,” Hinshaw said. “I made him take it off.”
The first interception Wilson threw, on a deep ball into the end zone after the quarterback had scrambled, resulted from inexperience, Hinshaw said. “Those are things he hadn’t been part of yet,” Hinshaw said of the play.
Wilson’s second interception came on a poorly thrown out pattern in which the QB was plastered as he threw.
That left Wilson holding his shoulder and gave Hoak his chance to play.
“I was really proud of the way Gunnar came in,” Stoops said. “I just mentioned that to the team. ... Gunnar and his character and ability, I was really proud of him.”
To his credit, after his rugged first half Wilson returned, protected the football and put 14 points on the board.
“I can’t let the game get to me,” Wilson said. “I have to rely on my technique and just relax.”
So where does UK stand at QB after one game?
Having won the job in the preseason, Wilson deserves more opportunities to start.
Obviously, for Kentucky to have a positive season, its quarterback play will have to grow well beyond what we saw Saturday.
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory