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11 risers and 2 fallers from Kentucky’s season opener

The feel-good win Kentucky needed to kick off the new season, especially on offense.

Syndication: The Courier-Journal Michael Clevenger/Courier Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Kentucky Wildcats are 1-0 after an impressive showing against Louisiana Monroe to kick off the 2021 season.

After falling behind 7-0 early, Kentucky went on a 38-0 run and ultimately came away with a 45-10 victory. It’s the 12th-straight non-conference win for the Wildcats dating back to the beginning of the 2018 season.

Up next, the Cats are back home next Saturday as the Missouri Tigers come to Kroger Field in one of the biggest SEC East matchups of the season.

Now, here is a look at the players whose stock rose and fell the most in this contest.


Liam Coen: What a debut for Kentucky’s new offensive coordinator, as Kentucky produced a 350-yard passer, two 100-yard receivers and a 100-yard rusher. What I really loved is it was a great balance of the run and pass throughout, as Kentucky finished with 33 passes and 34 runs. With the way Will Levis was airing it out, it would have been easy to fall in love with the pass, but Coen stayed committed to a balanced attack for four quarters. While the Warhawks are probably one of the worst FBS teams (ranked 123rd out of 130 teams in preseason S&P), this was the best Kentucky’s offense has looked since 2016 at Louisville.

Wan’Dale Robinson: I think it’s safe to say Wan’Dale Robinson made the right decision coming to Kentucky after two productive seasons with the Cornhuskers. While Scott Frost tried to get the ball in Robinson’s hands as a running back and wide receiver, it’s clear he needs to be a full-time receiver to reach his full potential. That was on clear display today while he racked up 125 receiving yards and two scores in just one half of work. Not only is he clearly Kentucky’s top pass-catcher, but he looks like a future NFL receiver, whereas he wasn’t going to hold up in the pros playing the backfield as a 5-11, 185-pound ball of fire.

The pass rush: While the offense will get much of the local and national attention, the defense was even better, holding the Warhawks to just 87 total yards, marking the first time in 25 years a Kentucky defense held its opponent to under 100 yards. A major part of it was the pass rush, which was one of the biggest question marks coming into the season. They were already up to six sacks and 11 tackles for loss early in the third quarter as the Warhawks had no answer for the Wildcats’ front seven. Even safety Yusuf Corker got a sack coming off a safety blitz as Brad White called a masterful game himself.

Will Levis: What a debut for the former Penn State signal-caller. All throughout fall camp, the hype has been building for Will Levis was about to do in Coen’s offense, and he got off to a fantastic start. Despite the interception on the first drive on a ball that was a little behind Josh Ali but was still catchable, Levis responded with two-straight drives that ended in passing scores and finished the game with four scores and 367 yards while completing 69.2% of his passes.

Josh Ali: The dropped pass that turned into an interception was bad, but give props to Josh Ali for responding in a big way with three grabs for 100 yards on the ensuing three drives, all of which ended in touchdowns and included his 58-yard scoring grab. That helped Kentucky go from being down 7-0 to up 21-7 and effectively put the game out of reach.

J.J. Weaver: While there was a lot of winners on Kentucky’s side in this one, none were bigger than J.J. Weaver, who suffered a torn ACL on November 29th and was uncertain to even be ready for the season opener when fall camp began. ACL tears are very hard to come back from, and while players often return to game action within eight months, guys like Weaver who rely heavily on being explosive off the edge often take a full year before they’re fully back to playing up to their full potential. Weaver didn’t look rusty at all in this one, as he already had two sacks early in the second quarter and actually looked like he’d taken a step forward from what he was last season.

Isaiah Epps: It’s been a rough last four years for just about any Kentucky wide receiver, and that was especially true with Isaiah Epps. Despite getting consistent buzz and praise from coaches since arriving as a Class of 2017 recruit — including playing in all 13 games as a true freshman in that year — injuries, Eddie Gran, and inconsistent QB play helped keep the redshirt senior from ever making a real impact. He came into 2021 never having more than 76 yards in a full season, but he topped that today with 83 yards on three grabs, including a career-high 57-yard grab in the third quarter. Here’s to hoping Epps is about to finally have his breakout in what’s likely his final college season (he will be eligible for a super senior season in 2022).

Matt Ruffolo: With all the kicking woes Kentucky has had since Austin MacGinnis, Kentucky fans should always be thrilled with Matt Ruffolo going 6/6 on extra points to go with a 45-yard field goal. The former walk-on has now hit seven-straight field goals dating back to last season.

Brenden Bates: Despite coming into the season with just one career reception for 14 yards, Brenden Bates drew some high praise from Mark Stoops, who said this of the redshirt junior: “Brenden Bates, I believe, is one of the best players we have on our team. A complete tight end. He’s got a lot of pop to him. He’s very sudden — can make explosive blocks and can run and catch.” Bates made his coach proud today, as he caught his first career touchdown on a four-yard grab early in the fourth quarter. Here’s to hoping this is the start of Bates’ emergence in this revamped offense.

Octavious Oxendine: Despite being one of the top Bluegrass recruits in the Class of 2020, Octavious Oxendine was just the fourth-best defensive tackle Kentucky signed that year as Justin Rogers, Josiah Hayes and Tre’vonn Rybka were all ranked higher. However, it was Oxendine who looked like the best of the group today, as he finished the game with five tackles (had three straight at one point), one tackle for loss and several QB pressures while locking down his gap and helping hold the Warhawks to just 17 rushing yards on 43 attempts.

Kentucky -31 bettors: The Wildcats entered this game as 31-point favorites and actually led by 31 with the ball in the fourth quarter. But after turning the ball over and allowing a field goal with 4:44 left, it looked like Kentucky was going to run the clock out and fail to cover. Coen had other plans as he let backup QB Beau Allen air it out and complete four passes for 48 yards before Michael Drennen ran it in for the backdoor cover. Kentucky has never been great at covering the spread as a home favorite under Mark Stoops, but they managed to this time thanks to Coen not pumping the brakes while also giving Allen a chance to shine and show he may very well be capable of keeping this offense going if Levis were to miss time.


Taj Dodson: It’s hard to find anyone who hurt their stock today, but unfortunately, an injury did just that for safety Taj Dodson, who left the game with a first-half groin injury and never returned. He’s listed as the backup free safety behind Yusuf Corker and was expected to play significant snaps this season, especially with Vito Tisdale sidelined with his legal troubles. Hopefully this isn’t a long-term issue, as groin injuries can be very tricky to recover from.

Kavosiey Smoke: While everyone and their grandma knows Chris Rodriguez is the man in this backfield, Kavosiey Smoke is no slouch either, but he didn’t help himself today with a fumble in the second quarter and finished the game with just five touches. It’s clear that there won’t be as many carries to go around in this offense now that it features a legitimate passing game, so giveaways like this will make it hard for Smoke to get significant touches moving forward.