They were baked, roasted and fried, witnesses on a sunny football Saturday to Kentucky’s season opener. Around 54,000 didn’t have much to cheer about for two quarters but after a halftime break that saw more than half of them linger in the shade beneath the stands, the team itself got hot.
Throwing and running, blitzing and tackling, Kentucky finally flexed its SEC muscles and put away another upstart team from the Mid-American Conference, erasing an early deficit and beating Toledo, 38-24.
The Cats held a team that last year made a habit of scoring 50 points on a Saturday afternoon to less than half that (and it would have been even less, if not for a late UK turnover that led to a Rockets TD). What kept the fans who braved the heat seated throughout most of the first two quarters was a combination of Toledo efficiency (the visitors rocketed to a touchdown on their first possession) and a three-and-out on the Cats’ first drive of the game.
Their second possession was part of a 14-play, 97-yard scoring drive that spanned the end of the first quarter and the first minute of the second. The TD itself was not quite a thing of beauty, bruising redshirt freshman Chris Rodriguez trying to power his way into the end zone but losing the football in the process. Fortunately for Kentucky, tight end Justin Rigg was there to fall on the football for his first collegiate touchdown, tying the game.
The cheer that went up from Big Blue fans was more out of relief than unvarnished joy. Predictably, the Wildcats weren’t exactly a facsimile of the team that spanked Penn State eight months ago. Their coach understood.
“You get to this first game and you just really want to win and win by a bunch automatically,” he said. His players likewise want to flash the form many of them showed in the Citrus Bowl. That just might come – with time.
“It's one play at time,” Stoops said. “It's hard for those guys because they want it all and they want it all right now.”
That’s because they pretty much had it all by the time last season ended – the players AND the fans. They had a team that was fun to watch and won most of the time. They got a little bit of each on this sun-splashed afternoon.
The fun happened in the second half, with Kavosiey Smoke ripping off a 40-yard touchdown run; linebacker De’Andre Square punctuating a career day with a pass he tipped and then intercepted; Josh Paschal forcing a fumble; and perhaps the moment of the afternoon coming when spring game-hero Bryce Oliver hauled in a perfect pass from Terry Wilson with a leaping, acrobatic grab in the front corner of the end zone for his first TD as a Wildcat.
So as the crowd melted away in the fourth quarter (pun fully intended), fans felt better about their team but no doubt wondered what kind of improvements they’ll see from week one to week two, when another MAC opponent awaits – Eastern Michigan. Players later spoke of being happy they won but dissatisfied with some elements of their performances. Their coach admits, he isn’t immune, either. He wants more and he wants it ASAP.
“I have to talk to myself about that, you know, about staying patient and just managing the game,” Stoops said. “As the game goes on, the better team is going to win usually and good things are going to happen.”
The best of things happened for the Wildcats on Opening Day. They won – and escaped with no injuries to speak of. One down on a path lined with dreams, ambitions and high expectations. They ran a gauntlet Saturday afternoon and it was a hot one. But at least we know their goals aren’t half-baked.