Game 1 is in the books for the Kentucky Wildcats, who will begin the 2023 season at 1-0 following their 44-14 win over the Ball State Cardinals.
Despite a sluggish start and an unfortunate injury to team captain Kenneth Horsey, Kentucky was able to run away with this one thanks to a defensive touchdown, a kickoff returned for a score, and a career day from Dane Key to come away with the double-digit victory.
Here is what you need to know from today’s game.
Football is back
Labor Day weekend signals the return of college football and ignites fire in the eyes of fans all over the country. There’s always something special about walking up to Kroger Field and seeing the sea of blue migrating toward their seats, smelling foods from various tailgates, and of course, Grove Street Party blaring on speakers from parking lot to parking lot.
The first walk of the season is always special, and like pretty much every other year of the Mark Stoops era, optimistic vibes filled the air. It’s amazing how year after year, it feels like the UK football program is in a vulnerable position where it could go either way. I think most would agree that this team seemingly has enough talent and experience on both sides of the ball to have a special season, but there are a lot of moving pieces, and in the SEC, things will not come easy.
The fan-friendly 2023 schedule that features seven home games should give Kentucky an extra push that they’ll need over the course of a long season. 1-0 was a great way to start.
Kentucky struggles early
After the game opened with an electric 44-yard hook-up between Devin Leary and Dane Key, the Cats' offense went stagnant. Leary was pressured, and Kentucky struggled to move the ball in the first quarter after that initial big play set up three easy points for UK.
In Game 1, you expect sloppy play and some lack of continuity, but Kentucky’s inability to impose their will on a MAC opponent was creating some concerning chatter in the press box. From watching the first quarter, it would have been difficult to tell who was the SEC school based off the eye test and the results.
Thankfully the ship began to right itself, and the Cats were able to use some big defensive plays to put some distance between themselves and the Cardinals of Ball State. Despite a lackluster performance from Liam Coen’s offense, who posted 199 yards in the first half but left lots to be desired.
Kentucky would capitalize on their defensive dominance and take a respectable 20-7 lead into the break.
Brad White’s defense has all the pieces
This defense has some big-time talent on it.
Deon Walker, J.J. Weaver, and Trevin Wallace are just a few names that are poised for a monster season. There were a few bumpy series, but overall, Brad White’s defense did what it usually does and clamped up the opposition.
Jalen Geiger’s fumble recovery for a touchdown was UK’s first since Jordan Wright took one to the house in the 2019 Belk Bowl. It was especially nice to see #4 with the scoop-and-score considering it’s his first game back after suffering a season-ending injury early last year.
Some are entering this season with a worry about the cornerback position, but if Game 1 and historical data hold true, then you can count on Brad White’s defense holding strong and finding ways to mask any deficiencies that may exist.
This was just week one, and you can expect that some kinks will need to be worked out, so I’ll be anxious to watch the group get better each week. Ideally, they can stay on the healthy side for the entire 12-game schedule that culminates with a bowl win and numerous guys landing on NFL rosters.
Ray Davis is the guy
Coming into this game, I was curious to see how Mark Stoops and Liam Coen were going to divide out the rushing touches. It was evident early on that Vanderbilt transfer Ray Davis would be used early and often in this Kentucky rushing attack.
For the game, Davis would finish with 14 carries for 112 yards and two touchdowns.
The 5-10, 216-pound speedster provided a much different look than what we’re used to seeing from the Kentucky backfield. Davis attacks the line of scrimmage differently than Chris Rodriquez, and you saw that on display when he was able to use his burst of speed to bounce outside for a two-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
It’s clear that Liam Coen and Devin Leary plan to air the ball out quite a bit this season, so having a big play threat like Ray Davis will go a long way in keeping defenses honest.
Barion Brown, are you serious?
For the second year in a row, sophomore Barion Brown has opened the season with a special teams touchdown. Today it was a ridiculous 99-yard kick-off return where he basically didn’t even need to make a cut. The score propelled Kentucky to a commanding 37-14 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
You can tell that Brown is still finding his way as a young player, but a full game rarely goes by where he doesn’t flash his elite-level athleticism. That won’t be the last jaw-dropping play that the Big Blue Nation sees from No. 7 this season.
Kentucky cannot be the best version of itself without Barion Brown being the best version of himself.
Dane Key has a career day
While Barion Brown had the big play, it was Dane Key who consistently burned Ball State throughout the game. He finished the day with a career-high 96 receiving yards on five catches and one touchdown.
Coming into the season, Brown and Key were being hyped up as one of college football’s top wideout duos, and their first game of the new season did nothing to dispute that notion.