The Kentucky Wildcats’ new-look offense returned to its roots on Saturday at Kroger Field, using a smash-mouth ground attack to open SEC play with a 35-28 win over the Missouri Tigers.
Chris Rodriguez led the offense with 207 yards on 27 carries and was also responsible for four of Kentucky’s five scores - three rushing and his first career receiving touchdown from quarterback Will Levis, who finished 10/18 with 179 yards and a touchdown. The Wildcats finished with 520 total yards in offense.
Kentucky got off to a fast start, scoring on its first possession as Wan’Dale Robinson took a hand-off 64 yards on the second play of the game, the longest run of his career, which set up a five-yard touchdown pass from Levis to Rodriguez as the Wildcats took an early 7-0 lead.
Rodriguez had his first rushing touchdown of the game at the 5:13 mark in the opening quarter on a three-yard run to push the lead to 14-0.
Missouri then capped a 10-play, 75-yard drive after quarterback Connor Bazelak connected with tight end Daniel Parker on a six-yard touchdown pass to pull the Tigers to 14-7 to end the first quarter.
Kentucky would then strike again as Levis hit Robinson on a 49-yard pass play to set up the Penn State transfer for his first rushing touchdown as a Wildcat on a three-yard run to push the lead to 21-7.
The Wildcats put together another solid drive late in the second quarter but came up empty as Rodriguez fumbled at the goal line. The Tigers took advantage of the miscue by marching 80 yards during the final two minutes of the half to cut the lead to 21-14 as Bazelak found Keke Chism for a 17-yard touchdown pass.
The second half began with the Kentucky defense getting its first interception of the season, as linebacker Jacquez Jones picked off a Bazelak pass to set up Rodriguez’s third score of the game, a three-yard run to push the lead to 28-14 with 13:19 let in the third quarter.
However, the Kentucky defense struggled to get off the field as Bazelak led the Tigers to 14 unanswered points to tie the game at 28-all. The Missouri quarterback first hit Parker on a short pass to cut the lead to 28-21 in the third quarter and then connected with Tyler Badie on a 16-yard touchdown to tie things up with 13:11 left in regulation.
The Wildcats fought back to take a 35-28 lead with 11:28 remaining as Rodriguez once again found the end zone from eight yards out, but fumbled for the second time, getting credit for the score, although offensive lineman Eli Cox recovered the ball.
Missouri blocked a field goal attempt with 2:07 left in the game for one final shot to tie the game, but Kentucky’s first sack of the night by JJ Weaver on third down stopped the momentum as the Tigers turned the ball over on downs to secure the win.
Although Rodriguez found pay dirt on four different occasions, it was Robinson who was the most electric player on the field, putting pressure on the Missouri secondary and opening things up for the running game.
Robinson set the tone early with a 64-yard run and also drew a pass interference flag in the left corner of the end zone to extend the opening drive. He finished with 121 total yards in the first half alone, catching three passes for 57 yards. He finished with five catches for 101 yards and 174 all-purpose yards.
Robinson played two seasons at Nebraska, leading the Huskers with 51 catches and 461 receiving yards despite splitting duties at running back last season. Now playing exclusively as a wide out, the former Kentucky Gatorade High School Player of the Year remains a dual threat as a pass catcher and punt returner.
Kentucky, 2-0, plays host to University of Tennessee at Chattanooga at Noon on Saturday at Kroger Field.
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