So what do really know now about the football Wildcats?
We know the offense really, really IS the Air Raid. We know the defense has some playmakers, including defensive end Za’Darius Smith, named SEC Defensive Player of the Week by CollegeSportsMadness.com. And we know that the special teams, minus Demarco Robinson, need work.
We also know that Miami (don’t say we’re from Ohio) is one of the weaker Division I opponents ever to visit Commonwealth Stadium.
The Mid-America Conference has sent some worthy challengers to Lexington in the past. Miami, in the “Phantom Clip” game, beat one of Fran Curci’s teams. Bowling Green upset a Jerry Claiborne-coached team. Ohio U ruined Homecoming for Rich Brooks and his Wildcats.
But this iteration of the Redhawks was terrible, at least on this day. A former NFL coach, watching from the UK sideline, told me, “They can’t decide what they’re doing on defense.” Turns out, it wasn’t much. And the ‘Hawks offense wasn’t much better, despite the fact that they had changed their scheme and tried to sneak some double-slot option plays past the Wildcats. Mark Stoops and his staff sniffed it out during pre-game warm-ups, made quick adjustments and shut it down.
Miami was bad. But so what? Kentucky did what you should do against a team like that – it dominated.
What would an upper-echelon SEC team have done versus the Redhawks? Pile up offense? Check: The Cats scored by land and by air, thanks to 675 total yards. They hadn’t produced that kind of offense since… the Air Raid days of 1998.
Play huge on defense? Check, 2.0. The UK D pitched a shutout, keeping Miami out of the end zone all day. Make plays on special teams? Welllll…. Once Robinson went down, the punt return game became an adventure. The Redhawks’ only TD came thanks to a fumble by a return man. But nobody expected perfection on this sunny day, which began as perfectly pleasant and morphed into a sweltering afternoon.
It was UK’s first win over an FBS team since the Cats dismantled Kent State in 2012. And it was on that day that Maxwell Smith threw for 354 yards. Not long after that he was injured and sidelined for the rest of the season. By the time he was healthy enough to play again, he had lost his starting job to Jalen Whitlow.
Smith played well enough last week to earn the start against Miami, but Whitlow, a bundle of raw nerves the entire night in the loss to Western Kentucky, played with much more poise and efficacy in the home opener to stake his claim to at least some playing time for another week.
The Wildcats likely will need the change of pace Whitlow provides this coming Saturday, when the Louisville Cardinals come to town. U of L has played eight quarters, albeit against inferior competition, on its home field, and has outscored its opponents, 93-14. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater now is a Heisman Trophy-frontrunner, given the slow start by South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and the knee injury to Ohio State QB Braxton Miller, injured early in the Buckeyes’ win over San Diego State.
Bridgewater has hung up the kind of gaudy statistics Heisman voters love: 752 passing yards, nine TDs and only one interception. The Wildcats will have to come at him with the kind of pass rush they couldn’t muster in Nashville, where they failed to even soil the jersey of WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty.
Tennessee took advantage of a bushel of WKU mistakes to show the Hilltoppers might not be as good as they looked in the victory over Kentucky. And the Wildcats were so impressive Saturday that the Big Blue Nation now can at least try to forget about the egg their team laid in the Music City.
When Charlie Strong and his staff study video of Kentucky’s first two games, you’d have to think they’ll pay equal attention to both. They’ll see what the ‘Toppers did against UK that worked, and they’ll study what the Cats did against Miami that worked – which is, virtually everything. The offensive explosion should put to rest any of the silly message-board chatter that popped up after the WKU loss, suggesting with despair that this offense isn’t REALLY the Air Raid the fans had been promised.
“Sure, we could have done things better in the opener, we know that,” Stoops said, following the win over Miami. “Like I said, anybody that doesn't say as a coach that you wouldn't change something here or there is probably lying.”
Stoops could have gone in any number of directions when he hired an offensive coordinator for the first time. He chose the ex-Wildcat, Neal Brown, a proven commodity as an offensive mind.
“I think you all know what the offense is, what he's done at Tech, other places, Troy,” said Stoops. “That is our offense. But you got to understand with Neal and with all of our offense coaches, they always run the ball.”
And they’ll do it against the Cardinals, probably more than the Big Blue Nation would like to see. Because as effective as the Air Raid was against the Redhawks, it won’t be nearly so prodigious against the Cardinals, who have far superior athletes.
It seemed the Cats had Miami out-manned at every position. But in no way does that diminish the victory.
“We're always going to value wins,” Stoops said Saturday, “no matter who they are, what they are. It's hard to get them. We appreciate winning today. We're going to go back to work tomorrow and prepare for the next week.”
Game One brought the team from Red Towel territory. Game Two, the Redhawks from Miami. It will be a different shade of red on the other side of the line of scrimmage in Game Three, and a different level of talent.
At the end of that game, we’ll know even more about the Wildcats.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)