Improved all around

Explosive offense, tough defense help Cats bounce back

By Brian Rickerd Published:

“It’s at least a positive step in the right direction. It’s not anything great. It isn’t the best performance I’ve ever seen.” – UK defensive coordinator Rick Minter

“There was a lot of improvement, but there still needs to be more improvement next week. Again, things that we tried to emphasize, we did do. It seems like a dam. As soon as you plug one hole, another one happens or something else comes up.” – UK head coach Joker Phillips

LEXINGTON – Those are snapshot looks from two of the key men in charge of turning around the Kentucky Wildcats’ football fortunes following UK’s 47-14 win over the Kent State Golden Flashes Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium.

Kentucky played very well. The 1-1 Wildcats clearly improved offensively off the 32-14 loss at Louisville, while the defense played better fundamental football and played with more confidence.

“I think we got better from last week,” said UK sophomore linebacker Alvin “Bud” Dupree. “Even though the competition was down, we still did things that could help us improve in the long run.”

The best way to sum up this one performance on Saturday night was that the Wildcats made football fun again, for themselves and for the some 48,000 fans in attendance at Commonwealth.

The Wildcats rolled up 539 yards of offense.

Sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith was superb for the second straight week, completing 30 of 39 passes for 354 yards and four touchdowns.

Fifth-year senior receiver Aaron Boyd was astonishing, catching 11 passes for 100 yards and one touchdown.

Nine other Wildcats caught at least one pass apiece, including two by Frankfort’s E.J. Fields for 17 yards.

Junior running back Raymond Sanders rushed 13 times for 115 yards with one score.

DEFENSE IMPROVES

Kentucky’s Cat Stevens (Oh Very Young) defense surrendered 409 yards to the Golden Flashes, but at the very least, the Wildcats didn’t appear as lost as they did a week earlier at Louisville.

Kind of a backhanded compliment, I know, but those guys should be happy to come anywhere near a compliment after the loss to the Cardinals.

“I appreciate how hard they battled,” Minter said of his defenders. “This is a defense what was much maligned after last week – coaches and players – and we deserved it. So we tried to atone ourselves a little bit.

“The biggest positive, other than the win and seeing the smiles on their faces for the first time in a long time, was how many guys we played. We played guys who hadn’t really prepped in the game plan. I was so simple with things that they could at least go out there and get some reps.

“That’s what we’ve got to do ... we’ve got to develop players here. We have a lot of youth out there, and there’s some future stars in the mix, and we just have to develop them and have that come out.”

BOYD LIVES UP TO BILLING

Offensively, everyone in the blue and white has glowing words to say about the 6-foot-4, 217-pound Boyd, a Henry Clay High graduate who came to Kentucky billed as one of the top prep receivers in the country, but did very little until now.

“A lot of it has to do with Aaron deciding, hey, this is my last one, I’m going to do what I have to do and work my tail off,” Phillips said of Boyd. “I’m excited that he’s now starting to make plays for us.”

“He may not be the fastest guy, but he’s a good route runner, and he’s got good hands,” Maxwell Smith said of Boyd.

Said Boyd: “It’s a dream come true, really. I’m really grateful for this opportunity that I’ve gotten. I just really hope to keep on making the best of it.”

UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said Kent State’s zone defense set up Boyd for a big night.

“When you play a team that plays a lot of zone, he (Boyd) is a good player,” Sanders said. “A lot of man-to-man makes it a little tougher on him.”

And then there’s the QB Smith, of course, who’s come light years since last season, running Kentucky’s no-huddle offense like Oregon of the East.

“He’s seeing things well,” Randy Sanders said of Smith. “When a quarterback sees things well, he is able to play faster. He’s obviously working hard in practice. He’s taking what I’m trying to teach him and taking it to heart.

“It’s nice to see a guy playing like he’s playing right now.”

LATE SURGE EXCITES CATS

The Wildcats trailed in this game, 7-0, early, and were up just 17-14 early third quarter when they turned it up a gear on both sides of the ball and took off.

Phillips said his team’s surge brought excitement that was sweet to see. And feel.

“You know, as hard as they work, you need to see some successful things happen,” Phillips said. “And they did tonight. What happens is, everybody wants to be a part of it. It’s a funny thing. Everybody out there was proud of Aaron Boyd and yelling and rooting for him, but they wanted to get involved, also.

“Hopefully this is something we can feed off of.”

Therein lies the potential catch in all of this. We all know that Kentucky’s road should get tougher this Saturday with a vastly improved Western Kentucky team coming to Commonwealth for a 7 p.m. kickoff.

But then the Wildcats dive into Southeastern Conference play, and there’s probably at least five opponents the rest of the way that will make the Louisville game look like the spring game, starting with a trip to Florida on Sept. 22.

Still, I see hope now, for both Phillips and his players.

The only question now is whether that improvement will continue at a fast enough clip to keep the Kentucky administration patient with this coaching staff.

At the very least, this Kent State win provided a good dose of damage control for Phillips and his team.

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