Kentucky’s quest for a fourth-straight winning season began today with a third-straight win in their regular-season opener.
This time, it was a 38-24 win over the Toledo Rockets, who are favored to be bowl eligible and win the MAC West Division. That’s why it didn’t come as any real surprise that Toledo proved to be a real challenge for a Kentucky team that lost Benny Snell Jr., Josh Allen, and its entire secondary from a season ago.
Thankfully, Kentucky returned most of its offensive line, as well as three running backs in A.J. Rose, Chris Rodriguez, and Kavosiey Smoke, who combined to rush for 176 yards and three touchdowns.
And while the defense got off to a slow start, they rebounded to hold the Rockets to just 10 points over the final 41 minutes after they scored 14 in the first 19 minutes, and all 10 of those points came off turnovers.
After the game, head coach Mark Stoops and select players/coaches talked about win No. 1 for the Cats. Here is a recap of everything they had to say via UK Athletics:
MARK STOOPS: Good to get that one under the belt. Good to get a victory. You know, there is an awful lot to improve on, that’s for sure.
It’s always a good thing when you walk in and you win by 14 points and you’re frustrated in a lot of ways, but that’s okay. We’re striving to be the best we can. We left a lot on that field, but we also did a lot of good things.
I thought some of the newcomers, some of the young guys responded very well and did some very good things, and we made some mistakes. You know some mistakes are going to happen and you have to be a team and overcome them. Putting the ball on the ground like we did has got to stop. If we don’t put the a ball on the ground, we sit there and win by three scores and don’t feel like we played our best football.
Part of that frustration has to do with Toledo. I want to give them credit because we knew they were a good football team and they make you earn your yards, they make you work. They’re well-coached, they’re tough kids, and we knew that coming into it. They did some good things; we certainly did some good things.
I felt like there is a lot we can improve on. It’s good to get that victory, go back to work, and get back at it Monday and try to keep improving. Key is to be 1-0. We’re only guaranteed 12 opportunities; that’s one.
Got to get back to work and see where we are and improve in all areas.
Q. (INAUDIBLE - Question regarding the defense settling down as the game progressed)
MARK STOOPS: I thought it had a lot to do with them settling down. The other quarterback actually is a better thrower in certain ways or more efficient at times throwing the ball, so I thought that he did settle in.
I was pleased. I thought they made some plays. They made some good plays on the football and settled in, and that’s just part of the playing good as a team. Got them in a little bit more predictable pass at times.
Early on it was frustrating. They did a nice job. They were getting us in third and manageable, third and medium, and they were converting. Give them credit. They do a nice job, and we needed to step up. Whether it was well-designed play or them -- the quarterback ad libbing, scrambling, running, but they were converting on some of the third downs. I though that the key early. That gave them an opportunity to keep some drives alive.
Q. (INAUDIBLE - Question regarding Ahmad Wagner’s performance)
MARK STOOPS: Really good. He’s playing and you’re seeing him show up like we had hoped. We saw flashes of that during camp and felt like he could be a tough matchup for some people, and he showed up today.
Q. What did you think about that unit as a whole? Lynn gets so much attention, but a lot of those other guys played well.
MARK STOOPS: Well, they made some competitive catches. And, again, I think later in the game when we were just settling in running our offense, throwing it, drop-back pass, we were efficient. That’s why late in the game we were trying to throw more as well. Just to get Terry comfortable, just get throwing the ball, and we go put it on the ground.
Because he had looked really good at two previous drives. And so as you’ve heard me talk about before, but as you get more plays and more offense, moving the ball, good things will happen.
I thought it was frustrating with the second to the last drive of the first half. We had a seven-yard gain on first down; on second down we missed the run. We should have had a first down. Now you get more opportunities because we were moving it good. But we make a bad run, it’s third and 5 and we don’t get the third down, and next thing you know you’re punting. That’s frustrating.
So those are things we got to get cleaned up. But when he had opportunities, got running plays, I thought he was effective. He missed some throws, but that’s why we went back at it and kept on throwing it, and then he made some very good throws.
Q. (INAUDIBLE - Question regarding Josh Paschal’s performance)
MARK STOOPS: Oh, yeah. I mean, he was probably in there as much as he can handle today, I would assume. I don’t know his snap count, but he’s a starter and he’s in there. It was very hot out there so you had to rotate some guys. Certainly with him couple weeks after his last treatment it’s great to see him out there. He’s been feeling good.
I’m not sure what his snap count was today, but, yeah he’ll go as many as he can handle.
Q. (INAUDIBLE - Question regarding DeAndre Sqaure’s performance)
MARK STOOPS: Very. Probably doesn’t surprise many of you in here either. You’ve seen him and watched him play very good as a freshman; come back bigger stronger, understands the defense better. He’s a playmaker. He’s one of those guys just a good football player. That was a nice competitive play he made out there today.
Q. (INAUDIBLE - Question regarding Max Duffy’s performance)
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, big time. I thought it started with the momentum, you know, was on their side early and they were overloading us and coming after and we rolled left. Coach Hood had a nice scheme there and I believe they checked out of that and went to the left and he rolled left and had that huge punt early on.
I mean, the rest of the day he was really solid. He’s a weapon.
Q. (INAUDIBLE - continuing question on the punting game for Kentucky)
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, it was solid. A lot of that has to do with him, where he places the ball, the height, and everything. But the guys have been busting it. They been work ing hard on their coverage units, and Coach Hood does a very good job. We were very effective there today.
I thought they -- I don’t know what the hidden yards was, but they had some good nets as well because we were giving up too many first downs and they were punting and then we were in punt stakes, it was 4th and 2, 3, and just trying to get the ball back and putting Lynn in a tough spot, just some of the those kicks.
We put better defense and get a little longer fourth down then we can set up some returns a little bit better.
Q. What did you see from the running backs trio?
MARK STOOPS: I thought they did a good job. There is a lot to improve on. There is a lot. There is a lot they need to improve on. They certainly did some good things, and our offensive line always does some good things as well.
But I would like to see our mentality turn up a couple notches as a team. I don’t want to put that just on them. As a team we need to -- we need a little tougher mentality as we move forward.
We’re going to get that out of them.
Q. Which of the three running backs really stand out to you today?
MARK STOOPS: Like I said, I thought there was some good and some bad. We’ll go watch the film. I think there are some things -- I don’t want to downplay it because I thought they did some good things. There are some things we need to improve on.
But, that’s everybody, including myself.
Q. Earlier you mentioned defense kind of struggling to get off the field. It took the offense a while to get going on third downs too, what was going on?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I think that was the game early; that’s why it was close early. They were converting third down; we weren’t. Part of it was they were in manageable third downs. We’re pretty good when we are in manageable third downs as well.
We did some silly things early. I forget what possession it was when Terry threw the ball backwards. I mean, we get a good first gain, positive yards on first down, and we go throw it on second down and we throw it backwards for ten yards, so that’s third and 14. No one wants to live in that.
So I think that was a big piece of it. There are just things we got to get better at. We got to coach them up better. We all got to do a better job make it more manageable on those third downs.
They did a nice job. We tried pressuring; they beat us in one-on-one. We tried zone; they dumped it down. You know, so they had a good plan early on on third down.
I thought we settled in in the second half.
Q. Pleased with your line play offensively and defensively today?
MARK STOOPS: I did. There were some rush lanes. You know, there were some rush lanes issues. It wasn’t all on them. One of them was a stunt and he got out early and ran on a third down that we could clean up coaching-wise.
But overall, I thought -- I never felt like even though they rushed for some aggravating rush yards, never felt like we were really out of position. One of our corners was out of position with the long run. I think that was the 14. Our corner, Jamari, got out of the position there leveraging the ball.
But defensive line up front was solid. Offensive line the same way. I felt like there were some holes there. We were doing a nice job. Thought we were very efficient in our extra set and unbalanced set. We were getting five, six yards a pop.
Just a little bit sloppy on some of that second down stuff where we lost some yards. Just got to continue to stay ahead of the sticks.
Q. (INAUDIBLE - Question regarding getting pressure on the quarterback)
MARK STOOPS: I don’t know how many we had, but there was some pressure. They do a nice job. They got to buy some time, too. Even when we had pressure, just kind of beat it outside of it. But, yeah, overall I thought they did a nice job getting some pressure.
Q. (INAUDIBLE - Question regarding the targeting call)
MARK STOOPS: It’s tough. It’s tough. You know, I think you all know that. You see the issues nationwide, so it’s just a tough call. It’s tough.
You know, they review it. I’m quite confident in the committee and Steve. And that goes back to the SEC office, so that was looked at by a lot of people. If they upheld the call, that’s what it is.
So I thought initially when I watched it during the game that Chris was throwing an arm just to protect him, but he didn’t. I think as long as we’re trying to wrap up, that’s a tough call. I’m not complaining about it being thrown and I’m not complaining about Chris, because I think he was hustling.
It’s very difficult to know when the quarterback is going down the slide and if he’s going to slide. As long as they’re going to wrap up and our head is up and trying to play clean, then it’s just going to happen sometimes. It’s in our game. It’s, you know, for the well-being and the safety of our student-athletes, so it is what it is. I support it.
Q. What was the locker room like at halftime?
MARK STOOPS: Nobody was panicking. But, yeah, there was frustration. That’s what I told the team after the game here. It’s like that early. These guys have been working for a long time, all the way back to last winter. All the summer workouts and everything they’ve done, and we’re tired of playing each other. You get to this first game and you just really want -- you just want to win and win by a bunch automatically. It’s one play at time. It’s hard for those guys because they want it all and they want it all right now.
That’s where we have to continue to build our identity and have a toughness about us. We got to have a unity about us. We got to play selfless, and that’s hard because they guys work hard and they want to go out there and be the guy. You understand that.
But it’s one play at a time. When we all take care of our business one play at a time big things will happen. That started the show later in the game.
Q. (INAUDIBLE - Question regarding Brandin Echols)
MARK STOOPS: He did. It’s good seeing him out there kind of feeling good. He looks faster to me, much more comfortable, and it’s good to get him back getting him healthy.
Q. What happened there with Lynn?
MARK STOOPS: I don’t think -- I think he was -- not making excuses for him. I think he was playing a lot. When you start doing those punt return, kick returns, offense plays in that heat, I think he was a little disoriented, to be honest with you. He’s been solid. He’ll get it corrected.
Q. I think you only played two true freshman all day.
MARK STOOPS: Did we.
Q. What does that speak to?
MARK STOOPS: I mean, that’s kind of how you want it. I did address that with the young guys in there, because that’s what I told them. Talk to the older guys. They’ve all been through it. As you get better, as your program gets better, you don’t rely on those guys as much, but they can certainly help.
There are a lot of guys in that zone where we’re not going to play them unless we need to. Goes to that four-game rule. We felt like the plan was going into it not to play guys unless we had to, because you don’t know what the injuries are going to be like or how they’re going to progress.
So you could go with the route of just trying to play them and get their feet wet. We just want them to keep developing and we’ll see where it goes.
Q. Second half were there any adjustments made to where you had more stops on third down than you did in the first half?
MARK STOOPS: There were some adjustments and things we were doing, some changeups. You know, just executing better in certain situations, I think. I don’t know the exact statistics in front of me, but I think there were some longer yardage, which always helps us, third and longer.
Q. As head coach, how do you stay so patient? We’re like the players. We want it all and we want it now.
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, yeah, well, I was about to say something and put my foot in my mouth. (Laughter.)
No, experience, John, experience. I have to talk to myself about that, you know, about staying patient and just managing the game. As the game goes on, the better team is going to win usually and good things are going to happen. I never felt like -- like I said, even during the frustrating pieces today it never felt like there was something we couldn’t get fixed and weren’t going to get fixed.
Talked to the team a lot about that during the week. We have a game plan, but until you go get in there and get hit in the mouth and things happen, the game plan changes. You have to adapt and be confident in the way we’re going to adapt and make adjustments and move forward.
Q. How did you think the team --
MARK STOOPS: Thanks, Jason. Jason helps me with that.
Q. Last year you guys were so veteran led. How did they kind of handle that today?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I think -- you know, I talked to them about that afterwards. I want to see our identity grow some more with this team. This is our team now.
And it was, it was such a dominant personality team a year ago. We have some guys that will flourish this year and let them find their voice and be leaders. It’ll come. So we just got to continue to stay the course and get better.
Overall though I do want our identity to grow.
Q. You coached against or had many players like Ahmad who constantly draw pass interference penalties?
MARK STOOPS: No, he’s probably had the most I’ve seen. Yeah, he’s a big guy. Tough matchup. Like to see him continue to progress. I think Terry having more and more confidence in him, you know, so same with the rest of the group. I felt like late in the game we were getting comfortable throwing the ball. That kind of excites me because we need to continue to grow there.
Q. Ahmad just draw those because he’s so big and strong?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, he’s a tough matchup. He’s playing faster. We’ve been pushing him to play faster, not think as much. He knows what to do; just play the game faster.
So he’s been doing that. He’s getting better and better.
Q. Anything on the negative side you feel like you need to address now before the next game? Anything good you saw today that you want to see more of?
MARK STOOPS: There is a lot. There is a lot. We’re always going to be grateful with a victory. Never going to apologize for winning a football game. I was proud of them and the good things that we did and staying the courses and staying patient and imposing our will late in the game. We’re a physical football team. I think that started the show. So that was good.
There is a lot of negative. You know, a lot of things we need to improve on, starting with putting the ball on the ground.
#14 Ahmad Wagner, WR
On drawing multiple pass interference calls against the defense …
“I’m always just trying to make a good play. Terry (Wilson) is always throwing good passes, so I was just doing what I can to fight through the game. I was excited to get my first catch today. All I had was pass interference (calls against the defense) in the past, so I was excited to get my first catch and move on from that.”
On prior basketball experience helping him be aggressive …
“I think it just comes from me being aggressive and just going for the ball every time. It makes it difficult and puts pressure on the defender when I’m going for the ball.”
On the receivers’ performance …
“Our receiver group did a great job. We worked all week and all summer in camp. We have just been getting better and perfecting our craft. I think we showed that today. We have Lynn (Bowden Jr.), who’s going to lead the receiver group, as well. We’ve gotten a lot better from last year and we’re ready to take it to the next step.”
#32 Jamari Brown, DB
On his first game …
“The first half, there was some nerves. (Head coach Mark Stoops) and (defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale) told me it was going to be like that and it was a normal thing. Every series (Clinkscale) said I’m getting better and better. You have to have short-term memory and just keep going. It’s a long game and you just have to keep fighting to the end.”
On the biggest lesson he learned today …
“You have to stay locked in because you never know when a play is going to come at you. You just always have to be ready to go, especially on third down. You have to take that serious and lock down. That could make or break you on defense. We have to do better on third down and communicate better on the defensive end.”
#67 Landon Young, LT
On giving quarterback Terry Wilson time to throw …
“That’s something we really stressed over fall camp. We’ve done a lot of one-on-ones against our defense, and again, we have a really good defensive front. (Outside linebacker Jamar Watson), (defensive end TJ Carter), (defensive end Calvin Taylor Jr.), all those guys are rushing us every single day, so that’s been an emphasis on us, getting in there and letting Terry (Wilson) do his work. When you give him time and don’t rush him out of the pocket, he can make good throws and I think he really showed that today. He’s got a good arm. He’s got some speed outside and can run the ball, too. But if you give him time, he can definitely throw the ball really well.”
On being back in front of the home crowd …
“It felt really good. I came out pretty nervous, to be honest, just because it’s so much different being on a practice field than being on a game field and seeing a whole different look, hitting somebody else. Of course you’re going to be nervous no matter what going into a game, but it was a little extra today considering I haven’t been on a field in a whole season. I really like being out there with the guys, sort of feeling that chemistry again and feeling some things working and getting the ball in the end zone.”
On playing in high temperatures …
“In summer practices we have two hours of practice. We’ll do a little lift, a little running. Whatever it is, it’s very limited compared to being out there for four hours, and four hours in that heat, your feet start to hurt, especially in new cleats that you’re breaking in. You start feeling that fatigue. People aren’t drinking as much water as the trainers want us to because you’re caught up in the game, you’re caught up in the excitement. It was pretty hot, but I think we handled it pretty well.”
#26 Brandin Echols, DB
On how it felt to play …
“It felt good. At first, I was kind of nervous. I’d been nervous all of last night, I barely got sleep. But I finally got in. It took me a minute to get into the game, but after I did, I felt like myself again. I started making plays like I was supposed to.”
On how it felt to make a play early in the game …
“I expected it to come since we’re a young (defensive back) unit and it was my first time in the game, so they probably thought I was the weakest one. But I knew it was coming, so I just anticipated it and broke on it. Then after that, I was ready to go, ready to make more, just keep going, keep pushing.”
On playing time expectations …
“I thought they were going to move me slower into it. I wasn’t expecting to get that many snaps, but I’ve just got to adjust, keep going, expect the unexpected.”
#1 Lynn Bowden Jr., WR
On the first game of the season …
“We just have to be patient. I noticed a couple mistakes out there. I fumbled. We just have to make sure we have good ball security during practice and keep on getting better. It was rough for me a little bit in the beginning. I was just too antsy, and that’s just the first-game jitterbugs. That’s happened with every level I’ve played on.”
On the second half opening up …
“We still have to be patient. Bryce (Oliver), Ahmad (Wagner), Josh (Ali) and Allen (Dailey) really put in work today. They’ve been going hard in practice since last fall and knew they were going to have big roles this year. Having multiple receivers out there that Terry (Wilson) can throw to makes my time out on the field easier. The defenders just can’t play me double team. It makes them spread the field.”
On team growth …
“I think that there still being frustration, even though we picked our game up during the second half, just shows how this team has grown. We have a higher expectation for ourselves. Toledo is a good team and they came out and played a good game against us, but we just need to get back in the film room and come out harder next week.”
#20 Kavosiey Smoke, RB
On his touchdown run …
“I just felt like it was my time to shine. Once my teammates made the block for me, I made my way to the end zone. That’s why I appreciate my teammates so much and I celebrated with them afterwards. Last year I didn’t do that, so I made sure to make that happen this time.”
On what he seen during touchdown run …
“I just saw one guy pulling, one blocking, and I took off from there. I saw green grass and the end zone, and nobody was stopping me from getting to the end zone.”
On catching a rhythm with multiple running backs …
“I wouldn’t say it’s hard, but you just have to be patient. We’re all ready to go, so once you get your turn you just have to show what you can do and do whatever it takes to make it to the end zone. That’s what we did today.”
#3 Terry Wilson, QB
On passing game …
“We’ve been doing that this whole camp. We were really confident in getting the ball to those guys, like Ahmad Wagner. He’s been doing some big things, and today he showed what type of player he is when he gets the ball in his hands.”
On throwing downfield …
“I feel like that was our game plan. It took a minute for us to get things rolling, but that was definitely our game plan. That’s what the coaches wanted us to do, and they started calling it, and we made the plays down field.”
On his personal performance …
“I feel like I did alright. There were a few throws that I let get away from me, and that just goes back to fundamentals. I noticed things that I could easily correct, but overall, I feel like I did pretty good. I’m just ready to watch some film and see how I can improve for next week.”
#3 Jordan Griffin, S
On the first game …
“There are definitely some things we can clean up, especially on the back end. It feels good being out there again, being confident and making plays with my brothers. I’m ready to get back in the lab to learn more and get better.”
On the first half and how they changed mentality in the second half …
“First half we had some jitters out here, people really just amped up to play. Once we came back in the locker room for the second half, we regrouped, got ourselves together and put out a better half.”
On adjustments made at halftime …
“To be honest, it was more of just things on our end. Communication, that was the biggest thing. We have been talking about that since camp. Communicating was the biggest thing, and we did a better job at that in the second half. The coaches did a great job at coming up with a game plan for the second half.”
#83 Justin Rigg, TE
On how he feels about the win …
“It’s a great feeling all around. It was a little sloppy in the beginning, but we turned it around and it feels good to start out 1-0. We just have to come back stronger.”
On getting the first game out of the way …
“It was hot out there, and that’s a factor for a lot of games. Going against your guys every day, and when you go against a different team sometimes it takes a while to get going.”
On his first touchdown of the season …
“I mean, no matter how it could have been better, I’ll take it.”
#10 Asim Rose, RB
On how he feels the game went …
“You know, we got out of there with a win, but first-game jitters. We didn’t run like we wanted to, we didn’t pass like we wanted to, mistakes early. There’s just a lot we have to work on. We’ll come out next week and hopefully do better.”
On how the team plays the game …
“Just taking it one drive at a time. We come out for a drive and learn about our mistakes. Then we make adjustments and go out there and make plays. That’s what happened today. I made a lot of mistakes early, but you see at the end of the game we started clicking and got things rolling.”
On if it’s easier with a running back rotation …
“I think it’s great. You know you have everyone staying fresh. Like when I came out, Chris (Rodriguez Jr.) came in and ran for 21 yards. (Kavosiey) Smoke came in and did his thing today. I just think it’s a great rotation that (running backs coach Eddie Gran) has going on and going forward all season.”
Kentucky Defensive Coordinator Brad White
On whether Josh Paschal’s playing time was monitored …
“No, it just happened that way. We had a good rotation going today. I thought Jordan Wright made some plays, too. It’s nice to have a sort of two-headed monster at Jack (linebacker) right there, plus Josh (Paschal) slides inside and plays a nickel, so the deal is we can’t wear him out. This isn’t going to be a team where we have guys playing 60 and 70 snaps. If we can have a bunch of guys playing really fast for 40 or 45 snaps, I think we’ll get better production. So that wasn’t an issue in terms of we felt like we had to manage him, it was a deal that he needed to get a little bit of a break. We’ve got guys that we trust, that can go, and we’ll continue to work through that rotation.”
On Josh Paschal’s improvement …
“He’s night and day from when I had him at the end of last season for those last three games. His movement skills are better, he’s physical, he’s violent. There are some things that we have to clean up and he knows it, but we’ll get those. We knew it wasn’t going to be a perfect game, but he got his feet under him. It was good to see him go make some big plays. I think he forced the fumble and got the sack, so that was good to help sort of turn the tide. But he’s good, he knows that he’s just starting. This isn’t a peak for him, he’s just at ground level and now it’s about building that, so I was pleased.”