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ITS FOOTBALL TIME IN THE BLUEGRASS! The ‘Cats kicked off the 2023 football season with a 44-14 win in a battle with the Ball State Cardinals this Saturday. This season brings an increasing amount of excitement throughout the state after a disappointing finish to last season. The excitement starts with new QB Devin Leary, a transfer from NC State. Leary led the Wolfpack in 2021 with 286 YPG while accumulating 35 TDs and just 5 INTs. Other noteworthy offensive contributors include Vanderbilt RB transfer Ray Davis and returning Sophomore receivers Barion Brown and Dane Key (combined for 1147 yds and 10 TDs last season).
Ball State arrives in Lexington for the season-opener after finishing last season with a 5-7 record. The Cardinals are predicted to finish 5th in the MAC West Division this season. Kentucky enters coming off a disappointing 7-6 season a year ago with a bowl loss to Iowa in the Music City Bowl (21-0). The ‘Cats are predicted to finish 4th in the SEC East Division, according to the SEC Preseason Media Poll.
Some early keys to the season for the ‘Cats are highlighted by a mix of newcomers and returning contributors. Transfer QB Devin Leary and RB Ray Davis highlight the influx of immediate offensive contributors, while returning WR Barion Brown, Dane Key, and Tayvion Robinson represent the returners. Re-establishing a successful offensive tone is key to begin the year off on the right note with the coaches, players, and fans. Limiting redzone touchdowns and winning the turnover battle, while getting consistent pressure on the QB, is key for the ‘Cats defense throughout the season.
The spread for Saturday’s matchup was -25.5 (UK), with an Over/Under set at 48.5.
The ‘Cats won the coin toss and elected to receive to begin the 2023 season. The first play of the season saw Leary connect with Key for a gain of 44 yards. The ‘Cats drive stalled after the chunk play but the ‘Cats special teams unit connected for the first points of the season with a 41-yd field goal by Georgia Southern transfer Alex Raynor to give the ‘Cats a 3-0 lead. The Kentucky defense induced a 3-and-out from Ball State in their first series of the season, with a key tackle for loss coming from North Carolina transfer Keeshawn Silver. After Robinson misjudged the Ball State punt, RB Davis broke a 26-yard run for a first down to the UK 34-yard line after being pinned close to their own endzone. The offensive line began to falter following that big play, with Leary forced to get rid of the ball quickly on third down leading to the first Kentucky punt of the season. Following the Kentucky punt, Ball State produced a 7-minute, 73-yard touchdown drive that put the Cardinals on top 7-3 with 1:35-minutes left in the first quarter. The first quarter ended with three consecutive Davis carries for a first down. Devin Leary ended the first quarter 2 for 6 passing with 51 yards, while Ray Davis finished the quarter with 6 carries and 41 yards. The ‘Cats outgained the Cardinals 92 yards to 67 yards on offense but trailed 7-3 at the end of the first quarter.
The second quarter began with the ‘Cats continuing their drive on their own 42-yard line. The ‘Cats continued their drive with another chunk gain by Dane Key, with Tayvion Robinson mixing in a couple catches to get the ‘Cats inside the 10-yard line. A pass interference by Ball State on third down gave the ‘Cats another set of new downs after 3 failed attempts inside the 5-yard line. Ray Davis finished off the ‘Cats first touchdown drive of the season with a 2-yard touchdown run, putting the ‘Cats up 10-7 with 11:31-minutes left in the half. A roughing the passer penalty on a third-down play from JJ Weaver continued the next Ball State drive. After a 4-yard tackle for loss by Jamarius Dinkins, Alex Afari Jr. forced a fumble that Jalen Geiger returned 69-yrads for a touchdown, pushing the ‘Cats lead to 17-7 with 6:58-minutes left in the half. The ‘Cats defense swarmed the line of scrimmage the following drive, finishing with a 10-yard sack by JJ Weaver. The ‘Cats began their next drive on their own 45-yard line following the Ball State punt. Kentucky’s next drive ended with a Leary interception on a 4th down attempt. Kentucky’s defense produced another fumble off of a Ball State completion that would have resulted in another Kentucky defensive touchdown if not for the officials blowing the play dead. Subsequently, the Kentucky drive began on the Ball State 31-yard line with 1:28 to play in the half. The Kentucky offense once again stalled with a 3-and-out that resulted in a 46-yard field goal conversion by Raynor to put the ‘Cats in front 20-7. Kahlil Saunders began the next defensive series with a 10-yard sack. Trevin Wallace collected a tackle for loss to end the Ball State drive and force a punt with 45-seconds left in the half. The final ‘Cats drive of the half began on their 45-yard line with 31-seconds remaining. A big 26-yard completion to Barion Brown got the ‘Cats to the Ball State 29-yard line to line up another 46-yard field goal conversion from Raynor. The ‘Cats went into halftime with a 23-7 lead. The ‘Cats outscored the Cardinals 20-0 in the second quarter.
Halftime: Kentucky 23 – Ball State 7
Ball State received the second half kickoff. The ‘Cats defense prevailed again after the Cardinals moved the ball to begin the half, finishing the series with their third sack of the game from a combination of Kahlil Saunders and Trevin Wallace. Ray Davis was again featured to begin the ‘Cats first drive of the half, contributing a 15-yard third catch and a 23-yard run. Brendan Bates caught the first tight end reception of the season, gaining 30-yards. That big gain was followed by the first passing touchdown of the season, a 6-yard touchdown reception from Leary to Key, pushing the ‘Cats lead to 30-7 with 6:43 to play in the third quarter. The ‘Cats secondary faltered on third downs the following Ball State drive, with the Cardinals targeting Cincinnati transfer DB JQ Hardaway to get big chunk plays to move into the redzone. Ball State finished a 75-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown to Ty Robinson (3 rec, 49 yds, 1 TD on the drive). On the ensuing kickoff, Barion Brown returned the kick 99 yards for a touchdown (his second career kickoff return for a touchdown), to re-establish a 23-point Kentucky lead at 37-14 ‘Cats.
The Cardinals continued their drive with a third down pass conversion to begin the fourth quarter. Ball State continued to move the ball well in the second half, again driving down into the Kentucky redzone. Zion Childress collected an interception but was called for pass interference in the endzone, putting the ball on the Kentucky 2-yard line for the Cardinals. The ‘Cats defense stiffened at the goal line, stopping the Cardinals on 4 consecutive plays to take over the ball on their own 1-yard line. Dane Key added 2 more receptions for a total of 20-yards on the drive before the ‘Cats punted the ball back to the Cardinals with 7:05 remaining in the game. The Cardinals again drove the ball into ‘Cats territory on the next possession. The Kentucky defense once again prevailed with a blocked field goal on a 51-yard attempt with 3:22-minutes remaining. The ‘Cats got the ball for one final possession and drove the ball 66-yards in just over 3-minutes, finishing the drive with a 30-yard touchdown run by Ray Davis. The ‘Cats defeated the Cardinals by a final score of 44-14.
Final: Kentucky 44 – Ball State 14
Kentucky – 357 (241 Passing, 116 Rushing)
Ball State – 295 (295 Passing, 72 Rushing)
Turnover Differential: (+1 UK)
Kentucky 2 – Ball State 1
Time of Possession:
Kentucky – 21:40 min
Ball State – 38.20 min
Devin Leary – [(18 comp – 31 att) (241 yds) (1 TD) (1 INT)]
Ray Davis – [(14 car) (112 yds) (2 TDs), (3 rec) (10 yds)]
Dane Key – [(5 rec) (96 yds) (1 TD)]
Barion Brown – [(3 rec) (39 yds) (1 Kickoff return TD)]
Trevin Wallace – [(12 tot) (2 TFL) (0.5 Sacks)]
Kahlil Saunders – [(4 tot) (1.5 Sacks)]
Alex Afari Jr. – [(8 tot) (1.5 TFL) (1 FF)]
The ‘Cats (1-0, 0-0 SEC) will take on the Eastern Kentucky Colonels (0-1) next Saturday, September 9. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:00 p.m. for the in-state battle. The game will be only available online on SECN + and ESPN +.