The Kentucky Wildcats kicked off their 2023 football season with a 44-14 win over the Ball State Cardinals.
After the win, head coach Mark Stoops and select players met with the media to discuss Game 1.
Here is a recap of what they had to say via UK Athletics and our own Dylan Ballard.
MARK STOOPS: Okay. Thanks. As I tell the players and preach to the players all the time, we’re always going respect and enjoy and appreciate any victory. Certainly one where you won by quite a bit.
So we will take the good from this, and certainly there is a lot that we did good. I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but it feels like that’s what’s coming out of my mouth right now.
Very aggravated at a lot of things. Without giving excuses either, it’s like it was one of those games it was very odd the way it was flowing with the defensive score, kick return, and then quick possession at the end of the half.
Offensively it was hard to get in a rhythm. Then defensively, again, we were aggravated at times. We knew that. I always talk about it. Everybody doesn’t believe me. But they have good concepts. They’re very well coached. They’re good and getting some plays on us and extending drives.
Give them credit. Give them all the credit for that. I’m not just giving lip service. So, they were extending some drives, and with all that we just were getting out of rhythm offensively and it just gets aggravating.
Then at the end we normally would never try to run plays there, but we had so few plays because of all the things I just talked about that we just need to get better. We need to improve. So we’re out there running a few plays at the end and try to just hand it off and get out of the game there at the end and he breaks one off.
Quite honestly, you know, they deserve better than that. We didn’t deserve the score there. We hadn’t been playing good offensively the whole second half, but great individual effort there and good run.
So as I told the team we’re going to get a lot better between week one and two. Everybody talks about that’s the most improvement you make each year, and I hope that’s the case this week. I know we’re going to go to work and look to improve and look to build off the good things we did, and the areas we fell short we have to address them and get better.
I will say that things I had talked about, and you guys have witnessed with special teams, have improved. That’s a very big positive I think. We had one snap that was a touch high, but other than that everything was smooth, very good kicks. The kickoff return, the punt game was good. Kickoffs were strong.
So overall, very improved with that unit. I still think we have a good football team. We just got a lot to work on.
Q. Can you attribute any of the offenses struggles to any one thing, or was it a calamity or errors?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I think you name it. Early there was a simple twist, communication with the offensive line.
Later, you know, we had one drive where the receiver and the quarterback are not on the same page with a route.
You know, I think everybody was a bit anxious. Just it’s hard to put my finger on any one area. I thought at times the O-line was definitely much improved and gave protection and were physical. We made some good physical runs at times when we needed it, and that’s an improvement maybe over a year ago.
At times the defense was very firm. We went through stretches where we firmed up and got some big stops, and then there were times later when it just felt ugly.
Q. How do you feel about Devin Leary’s play today?
MARK STOOPS: Devin will improve a great deal. You can see the talent that he has. It’s not always on the quarterback. As we talked about, it’s protections, being on the same page, executing. We need to clean up some things.
Devin will improve. He’s a heck of a football player. We just all got to do a better job.
Q. Ball State made some big offensive plays, but seemed like they didn’t take advantage of that. What does that say about your defense?
MARK STOOPS: We didn’t play great defense today at times. We had long drives but, again, without making excuses, part of that is you get a kick return and fumble return, you got to go right back on the field. Those are more possessions.
Then we got another at the end of the half where we should have had a touchdown, but offensively unfortunately we went three and out and kicked it and went right back out there again.
So there is really some extra possessions where — I guess for a good reason though, the two touchdowns gives them two extra possessions.
Q. Thursday you were ready to see Trevin Wallace just kind of cut it loose. Was it what you anticipated?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, you know, it seemed like that to me. How many tackles did he have?
MARK STOOPS: 12, yeah, he’s sideline to sideline, he’s really explosive, really good player. Missed a back on that one third down. He got dirty eyes and they came back to it and converted late. Got him down there.
Q. You dwell on some of the misses, but your defensive line did get three sacks, eight tackles for loss. Was really in the backfield a lot today.
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I agree. At times there we felt like for a little stretch there where we were playing pretty good on both sides and they were disruptive. I didn’t realize it was that many.
Again, I’m in the moment and dwelling on the drives that they had and the third down conversions. But there are certainly some good things. I appreciate our team because I think they want to be much better than this, and we want to continue to improve.
Q. Maybe stating the obvious but why do teams typically improve the most from week one to week two?
MARK STOOPS: I mean, let’s hope that comes true for us because that’s what we’re aiming to do. But we play so much against our offense. Guys can anticipate things, even if they dress it up, do it different ways and all that.
It’s just like early out there. I think — hate to throw a guy under the bus, but one of our outside guys got to beat on a boot.
We’ve seen 35,000 boots. Our offense runs boots very well, and they couldn’t even come close to getting one. You know what I mean, in practice because we see it, we feel it, we anticipate it. Then we go play a new team and boots wide open by 20 yards and it’s like we had never seen a boot.
Just drives me up a wall. And I think it’s just things like that. Just seeing new people. They’re very anxious. We’ve been ready to play for a while and everybody is really amped up and anxious.
Even early, even the wind, you know what I mean? Our guys are in great shape, but I could tell this game speed, just getting their composure and getting their legs up underneath them. I hope those are some areas where we’ll improve. Calm down, settle down, execute, play the game.
Q. Update on Kenneth yet?
MARK STOOPS: No, I don’t. I don’t.
Q. Jalen Geiger had a 69-yard touchdown return in his first game. What did you make of that play, and then hit by a...
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, we got fortunate on the non-target call because he had the shoulder. He has to watch that. He did — I will say it looked like he was trying to slide the head across which is good.
With Jalen getting the ball and getting in the end zone was a big deal at the time, getting the momentum. Just talking about that, I mentioned to you all in Monday’s press conference sometimes before with long drives early, so I wanted to intentionally take the ball, be aggressive, get the ball down the field.
We did get a good drive. Unfortunately we settled for three. But I think everybody enjoyed seeing the field goal kicker kick it through the uprights, right? Three probably felt like seven on the opening possession for us, so that was a good thing.
I wanted to get the crowd into it instead of deflating with the long drive. Thanks to the big crowd on a holiday weekend at noon. This is always a tough weekend and I thought our fans were great. We gave them some opportunities to really enjoy it and get going, and wish we could have played cleaner and had that energy the whole day.
But they were fantastic. We just need to do a better job.
Q. You mentioned special teams and kicking a couple times. I don’t think you talked about Barion’s 99-yard touchdown yet.
MARK STOOPS: I did not. Again, he’s one of those guys that works so hard. He’s ready to go. He wants that ball. He wants to go score. So that was good for him and good for us.
Our group has really worked hard as a group. He got some good blocking and some good effort there. Great individual effort by him. And just overall I think just the team has worked hard in all phases, not just snapping, holding, kicking, but the blocks for that. We were just solid across the board it looked to me.
Coach Stoops talks about how much it meant to himself and the team to see Jalen find the endzone— Dylan Ballard (@DylanBallard_UK) September 2, 2023
He talks about how jalen has worked so hard
He also talks about how he connects with moment in part by seeing own son deal with injuries
Cool statement by Coach Stoops https://t.co/JOHorHZmOq pic.twitter.com/mvvkx01gKn
Q. Coach, going back to the play with Alex Afari, when Geiger was going into the end zone, what’s it mean for a guy like that when they have been injured for so long?
MARK STOOPS: Well, it means an awful lot. You know, as my kids get older, I have a son that’s a junior in high school and he works really hard. Works all year long and makes me maybe slow down and have a greater appreciation for our players. I always do and I have been injured before as a player.
But like it’s so much of the next-man mentality. Individually for our players I can’t think them enough for what they go through, because they dedicate — to them it feels like it’s the most important thing in their life and they do pour into that.
Then a guy like Kenneth, first game he gets hurt. Let’s hope it’s not serious. My son got hurt in his opener in a high school game, and for Jalen to be out almost an entire year and come back in the first year and score, good for him.
He deserves it. He’s worked really hard. So I’m really happy for him.
Q. Ray Davis really stepped up.
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, he really did. I thought he had some really impressive runs, and not always the longer ones. I thought just he gave us a nice dimension of — they had some guys dropping down the hole and they’re physical and they got guys in position.
They made a couple of misses, and just getting those extra four, five, six, seven, ten yards sometimes is a big deal. We know he’s physical and tough and has good vision. But also he can also make people miss.
Q. What did you think about the pass rush?
MARK STOOPS: It’s hard for me to tell with the guys up front. Again, hate to dwell on the negative, but sometimes I want to see guys finish. I want them to finish plays. I thought at times our D-line did. With the numbers that you just told me obviously they did.
But I thought there were times when we didn’t finish in the backfield on some things. It wasn’t just D-line. Could be other guys pressuring off the edge and some things where I thought we could have got some people down.
Q. Teams improving between week one and two. On your squad, what area would you like to see the biggest improvement to take place?
MARK STOOPS: Well, you know, I think you know what I’m going to say here. Obviously as a unit, the areas we’ve done good, let’s build on that. Some special teams I thought today were special. Let’s continue to do that and make the routine look routine. Don’t take anything for granted. Build only the good things we’re doing.
We need to be clean. At times offensively we were very efficient and very explosive. We got the ball down the field. I thought we were physical at times. When everybody knew we were going to run it we were able to run it for two, three, four yards and convert and get it in the end zone.
I thought that was good to see. I thought our protection was really solid at times. Then there were some basics. Some simple twists that we didn’t pass off that we got to improve on that. That’s routine.
Defensively the same thing. I thought we had a chance to get off on some third downs and finish. We had competitive one-on-one plays that we didn’t win that we better win. We need to learn to make those plays.
There is a lot of areas we will improve on.
Q. Does it tell you something about your expectations for this team that you win by 30 and don’t seem to be real happy about the way you played overall?
MARK STOOPS: I do. And I started that with the team. I have to practice what I preach. I told them always to be respectful and appreciate a victory. I don’t care if it’s by a point, 30 points, whatever. A victory is a victory. They work hard. They deserve that. Enjoy that. If we don’t enjoy that then we all got a problem, right?
We got to enjoy the good. And I started with that with the players because I really do appreciate it. They’ve really been good. I’ve not been lying to you when I say I like their approach. I told them I need to do a better job. Some of that we got to button up. We got get better. We got to be smoother.
At least that’s how it feels. Just gets frustrating sometimes when you walk off the field and get some things that just stick in your head. But we will go to work, I know that. This group will be good. I like their attitude.
Q. How do you feel about Jager snapping?
MARK STOOPS: It’s hard to tell. Jager, he’s got a lot on his plate with snapping and then doing his assignment. You know, and so it’s tough. That’s his first time doing it. He is going to be a really good player, and there were some moments that were tough for him today. He’ll improve. Experience helps.
#13, Devin Leary, QB
On his overall thoughts on today’s game…
“We got the win. It’s definitely been a little while since, you know, I was able to play in a game, but I’m happy to walk away with a win. But, at the same time, a lot of guys understand that we left a lot of plays out there. Ball State came out ready to play, as we expected. They did a lot of good things. They were coached really well and had some good players out there. [Our] defense balled out. Our defense played really well, had some explosive plays, and scored a touchdown, so shoutout to those guys. Offensively, we did some good things and then we did some things that we can’t do and we understand that. Obviously, the win is really good, but at the same time, there is so much that we can correct and so much that we can get better at. In a sense, we have to get back to the drawing board, but also appreciate winning because winning is still hard at the end of the day.”
On feeling any rust in his return to competition …
“No, not really. It kind of hit me though as we were running out. It’s been a little while since last October and going down. I wouldn’t say I was nervous. I felt really prepared coming into this game, but a couple of throws got away from me a little bit. It felt good to be at Kroger Field and to be playing in Blue.”
On his offensive weapons and execution …
“Very good. These are receivers that you can throw a bubble out to them or a slant, and they can take it to the house. You saw a little bit of that today with Dane [Key] and Tayvion [Robinson]. It’s my job to be a better point guard. It’s my job to do better at distributing the ball to those guys. There were certain plays where I think I did pretty well, but also tons that I wish I could get back. That’s just me not playing the game for a little while. I’m kind of being hard on myself and being my biggest critic, but I know we’ll get better. I know this upcoming week at practice we will respond a lot better. Guys are hungry to correct those mistakes.”
#1, Ray Davis, RB
On the atmosphere at Kroger Field …
“The energy was live. It was exciting to run out of the tunnel and see the whole place screaming and yelling. It definitely fed into our team and gave us energy. It was a slow start, but as the fans started to get into it, I think that we started to turn it up a little bit more and have a little bit of fun and become ourselves. It was electrifying and a lot different than what I had been used to in my years of playing football. It was exciting to see the crown stick with us from the start to the end.”
On his feelings after scoring two touchdowns…
“I was excited. All props go to my O-Line. I’m going to name all of those guys: [Kenneth] Horsey, Eli [Cox], Marques [Cox], Jager [Burton], [Jeremy] Flax, and Courtland [Ford]. The reason why I end up in the endzone is because of those five guys, and if I’m blessed to keep ending in the endzone, it is because of those five guys.”
On his role in the offense …
“It just shows the hard work that I’ve put in. It also shows that I’m willing to do what I’ve got to do for my team, whether that’s running the ball, catching the ball, or blocking for Devin [Leary]. I’m going to continue to do what I’ve got to do. As long as Coach [Liam] Coen believes in me and trusts in me, and the team believes in me and trusts in me, I’m going to go out there and continue to keep executing and try to get better each and every day.”
#0, Deone Walker, DL
On how he is feeling after game one of the season…
“I did a lot of good things, and I did a lot of bad things. I’m just ready to get into Monday’s practice and clean everything up.”
On what he did well throughout the game…
“I feel like I helped us fight adversity. I kept my teammates up when they drove down the field on us. I feel like our offense really helped us by getting that touchdown right after they scored on us. That really added the fire under us.”
On Jalen Geiger returning from injury last season…
“It was good, we were ecstatic. Jalen, he had a pretty short season, so it was just good and everybody was happy for him. It’s just great.”
#4, Jalen Geiger, DB
On returning to the field after injury last season…
“Great to get that win, good to be back out there with my brothers. It was a blessing just to be back out there on that field.”
On scoring his first touchdown after injury…
“It means everything to me. It was a surreal moment, just being out there running. I mean really, just the whole nature of playing football again, it was just crazy. All that rehab I had to do to get back to this moment, it was just good for me to make that play.”
Just an all around special day for saftey Jalen Geiger— Dylan Ballard (@DylanBallard_UK) September 2, 2023
He talks about recovering from his injury, what the play meant, and sharing that moment with his teammates
He also mentions that he and the doctor who treated him shared a special moment and he “shed a tear”
Take a listen! pic.twitter.com/w2wWiwGKq7
On what he missed the most after injury last season…
“What I missed the most was probably the camaraderie with the guys, just having fun with my brothers and going out there. The third downs when it gets loud, somebody makes a play and we all get hyped, I really just missed that.”
#6, Dane Key, WR
On his thoughts on game one…
“A lot to improve on, that’s the main thing. I see how good we can be but there are a lot of miscommunications that we had out there. So, taking that from game one is something that the whole team is just trying to work on. Mainly the offense is what I saw. Just miscommunications that we have to sort out this week, just work on that and we’ll improve next week.”
On how it felt to be in Liam Coens offense…
“It felt really good. He really trusted us to go out there and play. He said he had things to work on, which I didn’t think he had things, I really liked what he did. Playing with Coach Coen is really special, and I can’t wait to keep improving with him.”
On if it today’s performance excites him …
“It definitely excites me because I know the type of team we can be and the type of offense that we have. The things that I saw that we can improve on and the things we are going to watch film on to improve is something really special.”
#7, Barion Brown, WR
On how the touchdown felt when he got into the open field …
“It felt great. It’s a dream come true for any football player to score a touchdown on a kick return, and it’s a blessing. Being able to make it on the side where my parents and friends were sitting made it great.”
On what’s something that he saw that you can improve on …
“Honestly everything. I feel like nobody is ever perfect, no team is ever perfect. Even all the good players have to figure out how we can make it better. So just going into next week with the mindset that we can always get better and were never comfortable where we are at, making sure we are hitting every key point we need to hit.”
On Coach Stoops saying he didn’t feel like there was a rhythm with the offense, how did you feel …
“I’m pretty sure that’s what every coach feels about the first game and their season opener. Everything’s not going to be perfect but that’s why we work every day. We work to get better, stronger and faster. Next week you won’t see the mistakes we need to work on this week out there on the field.”
#32, Trevin Wallace, LB
On how much did it mean to see Jalen get his touchdown?
“It meant a lot to me. Seeing Jalen [Geiger] come from the game we played against Florida to getting out here and seeing him score made me very happy.”
On mistakes he feels he can work on…
“We started off slow in the first half, and in the second half, we also started off slow coming out. So, just coming out from the first or second half and telling ourselves to keep going and keep moving.”
On, as a team captain, how he will use this win to help motivate the team …
“I will tell them to keep pushing. Although we won, we want to lead to win like in the past, and continue to work on the mistakes we made.”