Despite rolling over Louisiana-Monroe 45-10 in the season opener, Mark Stoops and his staff will need to tighten the reins as the Kentucky Wildcats begin SEC play on Saturday night against the Missouri Tigers.
Kentucky is an early favorite against Missouri who struggled this past week against Central Michigan before pulling away for a 34-24 win. The UK-Mizzou matchup is typically a pivotal game as both programs often sit in the middle of the pack in the SEC East.
The Tigers won the battle a year ago with a 20-10 victory in Columbia and return quarterback Connor Bazelak who threw for 257 yards and two touchdowns last week. Tyler Badie also had 197 rushing yards and a touchdown on 25 carries.
With a much improved passing game, Kentucky now has the firepower to open things up and find some separation from a Missouri team in its second year of a rebuild under head coach Eliah Drinkwitz. To do that, the Cats must minimize mistakes and focus on the following four areas to get some payback this week.
The first six minutes of the 2021 season couldn’t have gone any worse for the Wildcats.
Liam Coen’s new pro-style offense turned the ball over on just its third play of scrimmage as quarterback Will Levis throw a rocket slightly behind Josh Ali, resulting in a tipped ball and an interception. ULM then used a 12-play drive to take a 7-0 lead as the Kentucky defense faced some early jitters, giving up a pair of third-down plays combined with some undisciplined penalties that resulted in a dismal start to the new year.
In the end, Levis bounced back to put on a show, throwing for 367 yards and four touchdowns despite having a few drops and some balls that came out hot in short passing situations. Stoops acknowledged those miscues in his press conference on Monday.
“Will missed a couple throws,” said Stoops. “There were just a couple slightly in front, maybe a couple slightly behind but the operation was good. A few things he can do better reading it, but there’s always things to improve on but he did many good things. Accuracy and maybe a little bit of touch are things that he’s going to continue to work on and he’ll get better.”
Levis and the offense need to strike first to set the tone on Saturday night.
Kentucky put the ball on the ground three different times in Week 1 - a misplayed punt by Wan’Dale Robinson, a fumble by Kavosiey Smoke and a bad snap between Levis and center Luke Fortner, who was just named SEC Co-Offensive Lineman of the Week.
With more game reps, Robinson is sure to look more comfortable on the punt team while Levis, a team captain, took full responsibility for the bad snap that was recovered by Smoke.
“It was definitely on me,” said Levis. “It was a personnel miscall. I had called a play for the personnel that didn’t match the personnel on the field, and we were on a speed break snap count which essentially Luke snaps on the first thing he hears. I break the huddle, and I’m like: “Oh no. What’s going on?” I was trying to signal Isaiah (Epps) back over into the formation to make it good. I said the name of the formation and Luke heard that and snapped the ball. Those are things we just can’t have again.”
The Cats have to take better care of the football.
Like the offense, Brad White’s defensive unit made some mistakes early despite holding ULM to just 87 total yards.
The good news is that the pass rush produced six sacks and ULM never really had much of a chance after its lone scoring drive. The bad news is that Kentucky didn’t force a single turnover after being among the conference leaders in that category last season.
“That’s one thing that irks me a little bit,” said White after the opener. “We talk, and we preach about turnovers (and) we didn’t get one today, so we need to do better in that regard (to) give the offense a short field. We never really shortened the field for them, so we got to put them in more opportunistic situations.”
Senior captain Josh Paschal was quick to add that one game doesn’t solve the pass rush concerns that haunted the Kentucky defense in 2020. The Wildcats had just 14 sacks over an 11-game schedule last year.
“We know that one game isn’t going to silence everybody,” said Paschal. “We’re going to have to keep doing this week in and week out. It starts with practice and putting in the work there, and it will translate into the game.”
"Hope you like the show out here, #BBN. Gotta have you for next week against Missouri. It's gonna be a big one. Need your energy."— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) September 6, 2021
QB1 @will_levis #ForTheTeam | https://t.co/zhWoRtT40t pic.twitter.com/DtrU5z9O7Q
Pack Kroger Field
Despite being back to 100 percent capacity at Kroger Field, there were still a lot of empty seats for the opener and Stoops used his weekly press conference and radio show to rally the troops for Saturday’s 7:30 pm kick off.
“Looking forward to a packed house,” Stoops said. “We’re going to need it. It’s going to be a big challenge. They did an excellent job against us a year ago. We have a lot of things to improve on to beat this team.”
Kroger Field was at 78 percent capacity for the home opener with 47,693 seats sold in the 61,000 seat stadium. Of course, there are many factors to consider - namely concerns about Delta Variant - but this could be the best team of the Mark Stoops Era so packing Kroger Field may be the difference in another record-breaking season.
Order your tickets at ukfootballtix.com.