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By LARRY VAUGHT
This time Western Kentucky didn’t need an overtime or any trick play to beat Kentucky. Instead, the Hilltoppers just beat Kentucky physically from start to finish. The Hilltoppers made coach Bobby Petrino’s debut a “smashing” success with a 35-26 win over Kentucky and showed why new UK coach Mark Stoops faces such a daunting task. Western was more athletic and more talented at almost every position and outplayed the Cats as bad, or maybe worse, than what the score showed.
Western rolled up 487 yards of total offense and put together scoring drives that were surprisingly simple. Kentucky’s offense under new coordinator Neal Brown had trouble generating any passing yardage with Jalen Whitlow at quarterback and by the time Maxwell Smith came into the game in the fourth quarter to complete a few passes the outcome was well decided.
While it was expected UK would struggle, I don’t think anyone — including Stoops — expected the missed tackles and mental mistakes. Perhaps the optimism that Brown could work miracles with an offense that was inept most of last season was due more to going against UK’s defense than an offense filled with playmakers.
And the bad news for the Wildcats is that Louisville and probably all eight Southeastern Conference foes on the schedule are not only better than Western, but a lot better. If the Cats were beaten like this by Western, what’s going to happen when UK starts a stretch in two weeks where it plays Louisville, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina — all potential top 10 teams.
Stoops didn’t mince words about the way his team played.
“Rough day. Not very pleased with the way we played. I thought we would play better,” Stoops said.
So did the players.
“I don’t know what to say,” receiver Demarco Robinson, who had five catches for 69 yards and two punt returns for 54 yards, said. “It hurts. Everybody expected to win. We’ve just got to play more physical and get off to a better start. We let the game get away early and then couldn’t come all the way back.”
That’s because Western “controlled the line of scrimmage,” according to Stoops.
“We looked out of place. Simple things. Leverage on the football. I thought we were very poor. They hurt us an awful lot on first and second down,” Stoops said. “Offensively, we did some good things at times. But we didn’t play good as a team. When we needed to control the football and move it, we didn’t do it. We have to get back to work. We have to get things fixed, and we plan on doing that.”
There could not have been a worst start to the Stoops era at Kentucky. Western drove 80 yards in nine plays to open the game to score and made it look easy by shredding the UK defense that missed tackle after tackle.
“It was just awful execution,” UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. “It was frustrating. They didn’t do too much to surprise us. We just didn’t execut.”
Then UK’s offense responded with a badly thrown incompletion, motion penalty, short run and a badly overthrown pass.
“I thought Jalen was a little nervous early, and it showed,” offensive coordiator Neal Brown said.
Western’s offense continued to dominate UK’s defensive front. By halftime, the Hilltopper had 293 yards — 194 passing and 99 rushing. If not for two lost fumbles, Western could well have put the game away by halftime instead of leading only 21-17.
“It was very hard to watch our defense early. I thought it was frustrating the whole game,” Stoops said. “What disappointed me was things we were in position to stop. Had worked on and had seen the same lok and did not play it well. That is very discouraging. Some things with new guys you can take. I was discouraged at fundamentals things.”
Kentucky’s offense did produce big plays — running. Raymond Sanders had a 49-yard run. Whitlow had a 50-yard scamper. Those two plays accounted for more than half of UK’s total offense of 190 yards. The Cats got a 19-yard scoring run by Whitlow and 5-yard run by Jonathan George as Neal Brown’s Air Raid offense turned into Ground Brown — a phrase Advocate assistant sports editor Hal Morris introduced on Twitter.
The Cats ran for 174 yards on 18 carries while Whitlow complete five passes for only 16 yards. Not once did UK got close to a big-play in the passing game.
“Sometimes you just have to take what they give you,” Brown said after the Cats ran for 216 yards and averaged 6.8 yards per try.
Sometimes you also have to make a change and Brown did go to Smith in the fourth quarter with UK trailing 35-17. Smith led a drive that resulted in a field goal and threw a 34-yard scoring pass to Robinson. He was 8-for-13 passing for 125 yards.
But whether UK has a quarterback controversy or not — both Stoops and Brown said they wanted to look at game film to evaluate both quarterbacks — the coach knows there’s a lot of work to do.
“We need to coach better. We need to play better. We need to look at everything we are doing, especially defensively, to get ready to play,” Stoops said.