Season openers under Mark Stoops have rarely been pretty, and today was no different.
However, this one ended in a victory for the Kentucky Wildcats. Neither the offense or defense was impressive, but both sides made enough plays to escape with a 24-17 win.
The defense was easily the more superior unit. They came up with the big plays when it mattered most, though there were still a high number of missed tackles and busted coverages, especially in the second half, which must be fixed if UK is to survive in SEC play.
As for the offense, the Cats never found any rhythm and looks like a major work in progress. Stephen Johnson was decent, but his supporting cast let him down in a big way, including offensive coordinator Eddie Gran.
Here are three things to know from UK’s season opener:
CJ Conrad FINALLY Erupted
For three years, C.J. Conrad has been touted as a star tight end in the making. But for one reason or another, UK has been unable to consistently get Conrad involved in the passing game.
That is, until Saturday in Hattiesburg, where Conrad put on a first-half show against the Eagles. The first was a 59-yard reception that put UK in the red zone:
Huge catch and run by C.J. Conrad. pic.twitter.com/TR4xGZVenX— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) September 2, 2017
Conrad would reach the end zone on his next catch, a 23-yard scoring grab to put UK up 14-3:
C.J. Conrad leaves no doubt this time as he reaches the endzone. pic.twitter.com/oCE2PI8EFk— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) September 2, 2017
Conrad was the MVP of the offense on a day when that unit struggled mightily. If Conrad keeps playing like this, UK’s offense is going to be scary once everything else gets sorted out.
The Refs Stunk
UK may have been playing against a team from the Conference USA on their own field, but they had FCS-level referees to deal with. On one drive in the second quarter, Southern Miss kept a drive alive with two controversial plays that the refs badly missed.
The first was what looked like a fumble by Ito Smith, but not only was he ruled down, the refs didn’t even review, even after an injury timeout for UK to tend to Chris Westry.
This doesn't even warrant a review? pic.twitter.com/nLfOD1rQh5— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) September 2, 2017
But the worst error came on a terrible spot two plays later, where UK stopped Southern Miss on 4th down, but it was ruled to be a first down.
But it wasn’t just against UK. A holding penalty on Southern Miss at the end of the game helped UK melt the clock and escape with a win.
Um, ok. I'll take it. Thank you very much. pic.twitter.com/4XRoun7ICO— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) September 2, 2017
UK will take it.
No More Wildcat
If UK’s offense is going to find any consistency, it may be time to abandon the Wildcat. Last year, UK was able to gash defenses with Benny Snell and Boom Williams running behind a great offensive line, but that magic appears to be gone now.
OK. It's time for Stoops to take the Wildcat card out of Gran's deck.— Jeff Drummond (@JDrumUK) September 2, 2017
Not only did UK lose three starting lineman and a key reserve, they also lost Boom to the NFL. One other thing UK lost that quietly had an impact here was Jeff Badet. The speedy receiver would be who Snell faked a jet sweep too on many Wildcat runs, and Badet was a threat to take it and be off to the races. Badet just being on the field also helped push the secondary back to respect the deep ball.
Losing all of this had made the Wildcat much easier to defend, and that was painfully obvious against Southern Miss, who stuffed it nearly every time.
I would rather get my roof worked on by John Higgins than see another play out of the Wildcat— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) September 2, 2017
It was THAT bad.
Now, come celebrate with us in the postgame thread!