Mark Story

Kentucky football has a secret weapon. He helped Cats answer a big question vs. Toledo.

Kentucky wide receiver makes acrobatic TD catch against Toledo

Kentucky wide receiver Bryce Oliver made a highlight-reel touchdown catch in the Wildcats' 38-24 victory over Toledo.
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Kentucky wide receiver Bryce Oliver made a highlight-reel touchdown catch in the Wildcats' 38-24 victory over Toledo.

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According to legend, old-school Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes said the problem with throwing the football was that only three outcomes are possible — and two of them are bad.

Kentucky Wildcats wide receiver Ahmad Wagner is rewriting that equation. As everyone saw again in UK’s 38-24 season-opening victory over Toledo, when Terry Wilson throws to Wagner, four things are realistic — and two of the outcomes are good.

On Saturday, the 6-foot-5, 237-pound former Iowa Hawkeyes basketball player picked up where he left off at the end of last season and drew two more pass interference calls from defenders. Wagner also caught the first three passes of his Kentucky career.

His performance helped the non-Lynn Bowden segment of the Kentucky wide receiving corps — considered one of the Wildcats’ biggest question marks entering 2019 — leave a mostly positive impression on the sun-drenched Kroger Field crowd of 54,610.

On the afternoon, UK quarterback Terry Wilson (19-of-26 passing for 246 yards with no interceptions and two touchdowns) spread the ball around to eight different receivers.

Most encouragingly for the Wildcats, five wide receivers caught passes. As one would expect, Bowden, UK’s star junior slot receiver, led the way with six receptions for 77 yards.

But, crucially, the junior from Youngstown, Ohio, had help.

Wagner’s three catches went for 57 yards. True sophomore Allen Dailey caught two balls for 31 yards — and had another 37-yard reception called back by an illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty called on Kentucky guard Logan Stenberg.

Redshirt freshman Bryce Oliver made an acrobatic 32-yard touchdown catch that put UK ahead 24-14. Junior Josh Ali made a tough catch for a 2-yard score that gave Kentucky a 38-17 lead.

Afterward, Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said he believed the wideouts had performed well enough against Toledo that it would give Wilson more trust in them as the competition gets tougher.

“I think we’ve got good receivers — I know we do,” Gran said. “So (Wilson needs to just) let that thing rip. They’ll make plays for him.”

Oliver made an impressive adjustment to the ball on a well-thrown, back-shoulder fade from Wilson to earn his first college TD.

“If y’all look at the video, I gave (the beaten defender) a little stare, ‘cause I wanted a nice picture (of the touchdown),” Oliver said. “I hope they got a picture of that.”

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Kentucky wide receiver Bryce Oliver (85) celebrated a touchdown in front of Toledo defensive backs Nate Bauer (6) and Saeed Holt. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

The UK coaches had talked up Ali’s development throughout preseason camp.

“That guy is one of the unsung guys on the offense for some of the stuff he does,” Gran said. “He clears out for Lynn, is really unselfish. We’ll find ways to get him involved (in the passing game) a little more.”

Most remarkably, Wagner kept right on coaxing pass interference penalties from defenders.

Last year, with Kentucky trailing Missouri 14-9, he drew a call in the end zone against Missouri on what would have been the game’s final play.

Wilson then hit C.J. Conrad with a game-winning 2-yard TD toss on the untimed final down that gave UK a 15-14 win.

From there, Wagner just kept drawing pass interference calls last season. “I had, like, four targets and four PIs,” he said.

So drawing two in this season’s first game was business as usual for the former Big Ten power forward.

“Darndest thing I’ve ever seen,” Gran said of Wagner’s penchant for drawing fouls.

Wagner said in his three-year Iowa basketball career, he did not try to draw fouls.

“I couldn’t shoot free throws. I’m not gonna lie,” the 46-percent career foul shooter said. “Since I couldn’t shoot free throws, I tried to avoid (getting fouled).”

That Wagner collected his first three college receptions to go along with his drawn pass interference calls only adds to the intrigue about what impact he could ultimately have on a Kentucky offense that no longer has star running back Benny Snell as its anchor.

UK Coach Mark Stoops said the Cats coaches have challenged the former basketball player to think less on the field and just cut loose and play.

“That’s why they are playing me more, I’m more comfortable with the offense and can play faster,” Wagner said.

Gran laughed when it was pointed out that Wagner is altering the old-school ratio of good-to-bad on what can realistically be expected to happen when a team throws the football.

“That’s a fact,” Gran said. “A really unique situation with that guy.”

Gran says Kentucky’s offensive brain trust does take into consideration Wagner’s consistent ability to draw penalties when calling plays.

“I think Terry (Wilson) really trusts him, too,” Gran said. “Anytime that single (coverage) is over there, (Wilson) has free reign to throw to him.”

After all, when you throw the football to Ahmad Wagner, four things can happen, two of which are good.

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Next game

Eastern Michigan at Kentucky

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

TV: ESPNU or SEC Network alternate channel

Records: Kentucky 1-0, Eastern Michigan 1-0

Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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