LEXINGTON — The Kentucky Wildcats backed up coach Mark Stoops’ preseason claims that his team is better the second time around by blasting the UT-Martin Skyhawks, 59-14, in the season opener Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.
The Wildcats rolled up and down the field offensively, compiling 656 yards of offense — including 446 in the first half — and they played good defense when the outcome was even remotely in doubt.
Stoops said he could not have hoped for better in an opener, especially given the volume of first- and second-year players on the Kentucky roster.
“Good start obviously,” Stoops said. “I was very pleased with the team’s effort. I felt like we had a good attitude. Through camp we’ve been working hard, but I thought the last week or so, the guys were really focused and energetic. There’s a lot to be corrected, but overall there were a lot of good things.”
...Sophomore quarterback Patrick Towles was very good in his first college start. Towles was 20-of-29 passing for 377 yards and a touchdown.
“I was very pleased with Patrick,” Stoops said. “The big thing for me is he was very poised and he made very good decisions. You know he has the talent to get the ball down the field. I think it was important for him to be efficient in the intermediate area and I thought he did that.”
“It was fun, but there’s still a lot of fun to be had,” Towles said. “We’re really talented. The people that were here (last season) have gotten so much better and we’ve got some good new additions. This was definitely a confidence boost. Putting up 59 points on anybody is good and this was a great game all around.”
Towles said the effort on offense started with solid play on the offensive line, despite the absence of senior tackle Darrian Miller, who was serving a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules.
“Our offensive line was spectacular,” Towles said. “It started with them. They allowed me to do what I did today.”
Towles completed passes to 10 different receivers, led by former Franklin County product Ryan Timmons, Steve Borden, Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson with three catches apiece. Four other receivers — Blake Bone, T.V. Williams, Javess Blue and Ronnie Shields — added two catches each.
Timmons turned his three catches into a team-high 75 yards, with a long of 56.
Bone had the one receiving TD — a 29-yard reception midway through the second quarter that was aided by a good downfield block by Timmons.
The only seniors among those receivers are Shields and Blue. Most of the others are freshmen and sophomores.
“What was great to see was they just went out and played,” Stoops said about Kentucky’s wide receivers. “The environment wasn’t too big. They weren’t rattled at all. Sometimes it looks routine, but like I’ve told you many times since I’ve been here, we didn’t always make routine plays look routine (in the past).”
“I was proud of the way our young guys went out and performed,” offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. “They came out and took care of business.”
Stoops’ and Brown’s enthusiasm extended to the running backs. Junior running back Braylon Heard, a transfer from Nebraska, touched the ball twice and turned them into eye-popping touchdowns — one from 73 yards that put the Wildcats up 14-0 late in the first quarter, and the other a 43-yard scoring run early in the second quarter that made it 21-0.
Kentucky led 35-0 at halftime.
Heard twisted an ankle on the second run and left the game.
“That’s very disappointing,” Stoops said of the injury, “but I think you could see on those two runs what we’ve been talking about. In a way those were both routine plays because they were blocked, but he had the patience to stay with it and do what he’s supposed to do. He didn’t get antsy and jump out of there. He stayed with his progression and his read and executed.”
Freshman back Mikel Horton added 46 yards on seven carries with two touchdowns and Jojo Kemp added 34 yards on eight tries and one touchdown.
Towles had the other rushing TD, on a 23-yard run early in the third quarter that made it 42-0.
The Wildcats also scored a touchdown on an 89-yard fumble recovery and return late in the third quarter by junior linebacker Khalid Henderson that made it 52-0.
Freshman kicker Austin MacGinnis added a 20-yard field goal to round out the scoring for UK.
“We scored a lot of points today and we could have scored a lot more,” Timmons said. “We didn’t finish a few drives. But I think the fans will enjoy this team and the offense we’re going to play this year.
“We’ve grown up,” he added. “We’re more familiar with the offense and what Coach Brown expects, and we threw the ball a lot better this game. And that helps our backs get open, too.”
Defensively, Kentucky played solid through the better part of three quarters, especially when the first-team guys were in there.
Henderson and junior safety A.J. Stamps finished with eight tackles each. Stamps had a spectacular one-handed interception and junior Fred Tiller also intercepted a pass.
Henderson, freshman corner Kendall Randolph, and junior defensive end Jabari Johnson recovered a fumble apiece for Kentucky.
UT-Martin had only 114 yards of offense through one half and did not move the ball consistently until the middle stages of the fourth quarter when Stoops had the reserves in the game.
“That was aggravating late in the game,” Stoops said of a defense that allowed the Skyhawks to finish with 396 yards of offense. “But that’s where we are. We’re not deep. The second half we got down to the twos and threes and we’re not there yet.”
Still, this was a terrific showing for the Wildcats on a day they had to have it. The late season swoon last season that led to a 2-10 finish shook the confidence of some in the fan base, and the UT-Martin win should help repair that emotional damage heading into Saturday’s home game with Ohio University (3:30 p.m. kickoff).
In light of Saturday’s excitement, Stoops was asked late in his post-game press conference about managing expectations — riding the fine line between stoking the fans’ enthusiasm while being real.
“I think I’ve said all along that we’re better,” Stoops said. “I think it was evident today that we’re better. I’ve said over and over that there were times (last season) when we couldn’t do the basics and we are significantly better now. We’re getting significantly better playmakers. So I have a lot of optimism.”
Stoops also said Ohio’s Bobcats will be “significantly” better than UT-Martin. Ohio has been to five straight bowl games.
“Like Coach Stoops said, we’re better,” said Neal Brown. “How much better we are, I don’t know. We find out more next week. We haven’t arrived by any means, but I think you’ll see continued growth.”