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Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s possibly costly win over Eastern Michigan

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Game day: Kentucky vs. Eastern Michigan

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Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s 38-17 win over Eastern Michigan at Kroger Field on Saturday night:

1. Unfortunately, the big story is a potentially big injury

That would be the injury UK quarterback Terry Wilson suffered on a horse-collar tackle in the third quarter. The junior appeared to catch his foot in the turf and as a result suffered a left leg injury — “Left knee,” said Coach Mark Stoops afterward — that required Wilson be carted to the locker room. He was wearing a brace on his left leg. He will undergo an MRI on Sunday.

While declining to speculate on the seriousness of the injury, Stoops did admit that “it didn’t look good.” And if Wilson is out for any extended stretch of time, it’s a tough break for the Oklahoma native. Up until his injury, Wilson had completed 14 of 26 passes for 114 yards and had carried the ball eight times for 43 yards. He appeared to be sharper with his run reads and more willing to take off with the football than he did the week before in the Wildcats’ 38-24 win over Toledo.

Ironically, Wilson’s injury comes just before the rematch with the opponent in which the quarterback arguably made the most impact last season. In just his second UK game, Wilson helped lead the Cats to the historic 27-16 win at Florida which snapped Kentucky’s 31-game losing streak to the Gators. Wilson completed 11 of 16 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns, plus rushed 10 times for 105 yards and another score. Unless Kentucky gets some unexpected good news on Sunday, however, it doesn’t look likely that he’ll get a second game against the Gators. Not this year.

2. There is a silver lining to starting the backup quarterback

That would be that backup Sawyer Smith does have experience. The grad transfer from Troy started seven games last season for the Trojans, including Troy’s bowl game in which he was named MVP. He completed 144 of 229 passes (62.9 percent) for 1,669 yards and 14 touchdowns with just six interceptions. In the 42-32 win over Buffalo in the Dollar General Bowl, Smith was 31-for-44 for 320 yards and four touchdowns.

He has only been in UK’s system for a couple of months, however. After Wilson’s injury, he did complete five of nine passes for 76 yards and two touchdowns. On his first Kentucky pass attempt, Smith hit Ahmad Wagner for a 54-yard TD. Later, he found Lynn Bowden for a two-yard score. “I don’t think the moment will be too big for him,” Stoops said.

Eastern Michigan is not Florida, however. In their 24-20 win over Miami to star the season, the Gators showed an impressive pass rush. They have NFL-capable defensive backs. And they will have the revenge factor as motivation after losing to Kentucky at The Swamp last season. It’s not the ideal situation for a quarterback making his first start for a new program. But, as Stoops likes to say, it is what it is.

3. Even at 2-0, Kentucky feels like it could do more

A goal this week was to get off to a fast start, and Stoops’ troops accomplished that. They led 17-0 with 7:43 left in the second quarter. But the rest of the quarter was frustrating, starting with running back AJ Rose losing a fumble at Eastern Michigan’s 1-yard line.

After that, on two successive possessions the Cats took over inside Eastern Michigan and managed just a combined three points. After a Jordan Griffin interception gave the Cats the ball at the EMU 11, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against running back Kavosiey Smoke forced the hosts to settle for a 40-yard Chance Poore field goal. Then after a Kash Daniel interception gave UK the ball at the EMU 30, a holding penalty on guard Logan Stenberg again forced the Cats to settle for a field goal. This time, however, Poore missed wide right from 49 yards out.

“Just like last week, there was so many good things that we did tonight,” Stoops said. “Really appreciate our team’s effort. There is just a lot of things we could clean up, and we will. That’s why we’re out here playing. It’s nice to win by 14 and win by 21 and come back and say there are some things we can do better. We’ll do that, and that’s why we’re a team.”

Kentucky can’t make those types of mistakes if they’re going to beat Florida next week. It’s that simple.

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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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