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The ‘Cats returned to Kroger Field for their second game of the season on Saturday as they defeated the EKU Colonels by a score of 28-17. The uninspiring performance should raise some concern for the ‘Cats as Cincinnati beat the same EKU team a week ago by a margin of 66-13. Overall, it was another very sloppy game for Kentucky. The offense continued to get off to a sluggish start, not hitting their stride until late in the third quarter after being tied at halftime. The defense put themselves in third down scenarios but consistently failed to create stops on those big third downs. Leary finally found a rhythm in the second half, much like his first game versus Ball State. He contributed 198 yards and threw 3 of his 4 TDs in the second half. The ‘Cats also cemented a more balanced attack in the second half but mixing in several carries on end-arounds by wide receivers, gaining chunk yardage on those misdirection plays. OC Coen’s creativity was exposed more-so in the second half, as the ‘Cats ran more play-action and designed plays throwing to the running backs and specifically funneling the ball to their playmakers in Brown, Robinson, and Key. While the second half is encouraging for the offense, it will need to continue into next week’s matchup versus Akron as the ‘Cats build towards SEC play in the near future. Another lackluster performance on both sides of the ball would cause much of the fanbase to creep closer to hitting the panic button for the ‘Cats.
The ‘Cats came into the game fresh off a win to begin the season over Ball State, 44-14. Their first game of the season left something to be desired, however, despite the 30-point win. The team scored in unconventional ways, including a fumble return for a touchdown, a kickoff return for a touchdown, and a long 30-yard touchdown run by Ray Davis as the clock expired. The ‘Cats offense did perform better in the second half of the first game, accrediting some of the early mistakes and sloppiness to first game nerves. The best offensive performer of the game was transfer RB Ray Davis, who turned in a 122 total yard, 2 TD performance. As the ‘Cats settle in to the season, a lot of the simple mistakes should work themselves out. The ‘Cats defense performed very well in the first game of the season, accumulating 3 sacks and 8 tackles for loss, while creating 2 turnovers in the form of fumble recoveries (1 FF returned for TD).
Eastern Kentucky arrived at Kroger Field with an 0-1 record after a Week 1 loss to Cincinnati by a score of 66-13. Colonels QB Parker McKinney is the most impactful player on the offense even after a tough performance last week against the Bearcats (177 yds, 1 TD, 2 INT). WR Jaden Smith turned in a 5 rec, 81 yd performance as the top pass catcher for the Colonels. The Colonels turned in a 7-5 season last year, finishing the year with a 52-41 loss to Gardner-Webb in the FCS playoffs.
Keys to the game for the ‘Cats included getting off to a quick start offensively, continuing to get defensive pressure through the pass rush, QB Leary to settle into the offense, and involving skill players outside of Key/Brown/Davis to make an impact.
The spread for Saturday’s matchup was -34.5 (UK), with the Over/Under set at 62.5.
Eastern Kentucky won the coin toss and elected to defer to the second half. The first play of the game was a reception of 4-yards by WR Barion Brown. The ‘Cats first drive stalled due to a false start on a third and short QB sneak play. The ensuing punt was blocked by the Colonels as they got the ball on the Kentucky 30-yard line for the start of their first offensive possession. The Colonels continued their drive with a third-down completion to RB Sloan for a gain of 11-yards. Eastern Kentucky QB McKinney ran the ball for a 14-yard touchdown on a 3-and-8 play to put the Colonels in front 7-0 with 10:46 minutes to play in the first quarter. Leary connected to Brown on a 2nd and 19 to gain a first down on the next ‘Cats drive. Later in the drive, WR Anthony Brown-Stephens caught his first pass of the season for a first down gain on a third down attempt. That Kentucky drive ended with a Leary sack on a 4th and 9 attempt. The ‘Cats accumulated just 44 total yards in their first two offensive drives. After forcing an EKU punt, the Kentucky sloppy play continued with a McClain 15-yard carry where he recovered his own fumble. The Colonels led 7-0 at the end of the first quarter. Leary completed 7 of 11 passes for 45 yards while McClain and Davis combined to rush for 34 yards on 5 carries.
The ‘Cats continued their drive into the second quarter, but the possession once again finished with a Kentucky punt as the ‘Cats could not find a rhythm offensively. The defense finally turned the momentum towards the ‘Cats with their third recovered fumble of the season, giving the ‘Cats the ball on the EKU 24-yard line. Trevin Wallace forced the fumble while Alex Afari Jr. recovered the ball for the ‘Cats. The ‘Cats failed to convert another 3rd down opportunity after the second holding call of the game against TE Josh Kattus. Leary’s next attempt was tipped at the line and intercepted by the Colonels. After an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by Kentucky pushed the Colonels into Kentucky territory. However, the ‘Cats defense again attempted to build momentum with a Maxwell Hairston interception (first career INT). The next ‘Cats drive began on their own 4-yard line. Leary connected with WR Tayvion Robinson on back-to-back plays, one for a first down on a third-down attempt and the next for a 18-yard chunk gain. The drive once again stalled thanks to a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage followed by a Barion Brown dropped pass, again leading to a Kentucky punt. EKU responded on the next drive with back-to-back first down plays, the second one being a 40-yard catch on a deep throw, pushing the Colonels back into Kentucky territory at the 36-yard line with 6-minutes to play in the half. Trevin Wallace induced a QB hurry on a third-down play where McKinney threw the ball away, resulting in a missed 48-yard EKU field goal attempt on the next play. The ‘Cats began their 6th drive of the afternoon on their own 31-yard line with 4:40 minutes to play in the half. The first play of the drive was a 16-yard catch by TE Jordan Dingle. Following the chunk gain on that completion, the ‘Cats once again stalled the next three plays, resulting in another P Wilson Berry punt, which the ‘Cats special teams unit pinned on the EKU 3-yard line. After a scramble for an EKU first down by QB McKinney, Trevin Wallace recorded the first Kentucky sack of the game with 1:34 minutes to play. Another tackle for loss on third down by JJ Weaver led to an EKU punt which Barion Brown returned for 36-yards to the EKU 24-yard line. The ‘Cats finally broke through with a 24-yard touchdown pass from Leary to Robinson to tie the game 7-7 with 42-seconds to play in the half.
Halftime: Kentucky 7 – Eastern Kentucky 7
EKU began the second half with the ball. The Colonels began the half moving the ball well, with a chunk gain of 21-yards on an RB screen pass (Sloan) to bring them into ‘Cats territory. Sloan followed that gain up with a rush of 28-yards to the Kentucky 9-yard line. The EKU drive stalled inside the ‘Cats 10-yard line and resulted in a 21-yard field goal to put the Colonels in front 10-7 with 9:41-minutes to play in the quarter. The first Kentucky drive of the half began with a Dane Key catch for a first down and gain of 11-yards. Another big catch for Robinson for a gain of 25-yards on a 3rd-and-10 play. Barion Brown took a reverse for a gain of 26-yards on the next play, putting the ‘Cats on the EKU 9-yard line. Kentucky converted a 3rd-and-goal attempt to Robinson for his second touchdown of the game, pushing the ‘Cats in front, 14-10 with 5:47-minutes to play in the quarter. The ‘Cats had their best drive of the day, going 72-yards on 9 plays. The ‘Cats defense stiffened on the next EKU drive, forcing a punt with the next Kentucky possession starting on their own 15-yard line. Robinson took a touch pass from Leary for a big 56-yard gain. Leary then connected with a wide-open Barion Brown for a 13-yard touchdown, pushing the ‘Cats lead to 21-10 with 1:47-minutes to play in the third quarter. The ‘Cats drive went 85-yards on 4 play in just 2-minutes. EKU converted a big third down to RB Carter for a 39-yard gain into Kentucky territory. The ’Cats led 21-10 at the end of the third quarter.
EKU continued their drive to begin the fourth quarter all the way to the end-zone, where McKinney found a wide-open Sloan for a 9-yard touchdown, bringing the score to 21-17 ‘Cats with 12:04-minutes to play in the game. The ‘Cats continued to find their offensive rhythm on the next drive, completing a 65-yard drive that ended with a 24-yard touchdown reception to RB Ray Davis on a creative play design by Coen. That touchdown pushed the ‘Cats back in front by 11-points by a score of 28-17. Deone Walker collected the second sack of the afternoon for the ‘Cats on a third down play, forcing an EKU punt. Kentucky began their next drive on their own 36-yard line after an 11-yard punt return by Brown. After a couple of Dane Key receptions, RB Ramon Jefferson saw his first touches of the season, adding in 3 carries with 23 yards as the ‘Cats let the clock run out. Kentucky defeated Eastern Kentucky by a score of 28-17.
Final: Kentucky 28 – Eastern Kentucky 17
Kentucky – 414 (299 Passing, 115 Rushing)
Eastern Kentucky – 311 (219 Passing, 92 Rushing)
Turnover Differential: (+1 UK)
Kentucky 2 – Eastern Kentucky 1
Time of Possession:
Kentucky – 32:07 minutes
Eastern Kentucky – 27:53 minutes
Devin Leary – [(24 comp – 38 att) (299 yds) (4 TD) (1 INT)]
Ray Davis – [(12 car) (52 yds), (3 rec) (36 yds) (1 rec TD)]
Tayvion Robinson – [(6 rec) (136 yds) (2 TDs)]
Barion Brown – [(6 rec) (51 yds) (1 TD), (2 carries) (34 rush yds)]
Trevin Wallace – [(7 totTk) (1 Sack) (1 FF)]
Deone Walker – [(5 totTk) (1 Sack) (2 QBH]
Maxwell Hairston – [(4 totTk) (1 INT)]
The next chance to catch the ‘Cats (2-0, 0-0 SEC) on the gridiron will be next Saturday, September 16 versus the Akron Zips (1-1). Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. The game will be available on ESPNU.