Not even a brutal first half could keep the Kentucky Wildcats out of the win column on Saturday afternoon at Kroger Field, as the home team held off Eastern Kentucky to win 28-17.
The Wildcats came into Saturday’s contest as a 35-point favorite against an FCS team that lost 66-13 a week ago to Cincinnati. As expected, the game was sold out according to UK Athletics since it was billed as a “computer game” with no direct TV access this week. However, there would be no early momentum for the Cats, who were in a dogfight the entire game.
EKU took advantage of some UK miscues early, scoring after a blocked punt and then coming up just short on a 48-yard field goal attempt that would have extended the lead to 10-0 midway through the second quarter.
Instead, Kentucky was able to tie the game at 7-all going into the half on a touchdown pass from Devin Leary to Tayvion Robinson.
EKU opened the second half with a 71-yard drive that resulted in a field goal to pull ahead 10-7 at the 9:41 mark in the third quarter. Kentucky then took a 14-10 lead with 5:47 left in the third quarter as Leary and Robinson once again connected on a 6-yard touchdown. Leary struck again in the third quarter with a 13-yard pass to Barion Brown.
EKU cut the lead to 21-17 with 12:04 remaining on a touchdown pass from Parker McKinney to Braedon Sloan. However, UK quickly responded with another scoring pass, this time to Ray Davis, as UK closed out the scoring.
Here is what you need to know from today’s game.
Rough start takes the air out of Kroger Field
Kentucky opened its first offensive possession with back-to-back completions from quarterback Devin Leary and was set up for a 3rd and 1 play when the Wildcats were whistled for a false start. On 3rd and 6, Leary’s incomplete pass set up an EKU blocked punt to put the Colonels deep in Kentucky territory. EKU would then take a 7-0 lead on a 14-yard run by quarterback Parker McKinney.
On UK’s next possession, a big run from Ray Davis was called back on a holding penalty, and a dropped pass over the middle resulted in Kentucky rolling the dice on 3rd and 9 at the EKU 33-yard line as Leary was sacked to kill the drive.
The Colonels used poor clock management late in the final minute as UK gained possession and tied things up 7-all on a 24-yard pass play from Leary to Tayvion Robinson with 42 seconds remaining.
Kentucky's defense was forced to make big plays early
With a sputtering offense, the Kentucky defense had to make some big plays early to keep the Wildcats in the game. Trevin Wallace led the defense with six first-half tackles, a sack, and caused a fumble that was recovered by Alex Afari. Maxwell Hairston also had his first career interception in the opening half. Wallace is on pace for a big season and was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week after the Week 1 win against Ball State.
Wallace had a game-high 12 tackles against Ball State, which tied a career-high. This season, he is on the watch list for the Butkus Award, which is given each year to the nation’s top linebacker.
Barion Brown, Tayvion Robinson step up as playmakers
Barion Brown made it hurt not once but twice with his explosive speed, and Tayvion Robinson rose to the occasion with two touchdown receptions as the two Kentucky playmakers proved to be the difference on Saturday.
Brown had a 40-yard punt return in the first half to set up UK’s only first-half touchdown and added a 26-yard run on a reverse to set up the third-quarter scoring pass. Robinson, a transfer from Virginia Tech, also had a 56-yard run.
Has panic set in for the Kentucky offense?
Despite a better second half, Big Blue Nation may be on the verge of full panic mode as the Kentucky offense went through a slow and dreadful slog on Saturday that resulted in missed targets, dropped passes, penalties, and a dreadful conversion rate on 3rd down as the Cats were just 4-for-10 on third down in the opening half. There’s no question that Leary has the tools to get things back on track, but Liam Coen and the UK offense seem better suited to an uptempo-style offense to find better rhythm in the passing game.
With a tough SEC schedule on the horizon, something has to change to get Leary back to his gunslinger days when he was the Preseason ACC Player of the Year at NC State before joining Liam Coan and his pro-style offense.
Kentucky, 2-0, returns to Kroger Field next Saturday to take on Akron at 7:00 pm ET.