LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Kentucky won its season opener but it wasn’t easy.
The Wildcats (1-0) avoided a possible letdown with a 35-20 victory over Central Michigan Saturday at Kroger Field. The Chippewas have racked up four wins against Power-5 conferences during the past six years, including a 30-27 stunner at Oklahoma State just two years ago and had Kentucky feeling a little concerned after the first quarter.
Central Michigan had the Wildcats down 17-7 midway through the second quarter, but Kentucky’s wore down the Chippewas with its running attack and outscored the guests 28-3 to close out the contest. Kentucky overcame four turnovers and a plus-4 turnover margin to get the win.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said the opener was “a starting point.”
“Good first victory,” he said. “Proud of our team, the way we played. Obviously, there’s a lot to get better (at). A lot of people say that you’re going to get the most improvement from week 1 to week 2. I hope that’s the case with us because I think we have a good football team.”
Although first-game jitters could have played a role with the four miscues, Stoops offered no excuses.
“There’s no excuse for that,” he said. “We’ll get on it and get it corrected. … We’ll get it fixed and move on.”
Although under the weather, Benny Snell produced his usual numbers in the backfield, finishing with 125 yards rushing on 20 carries and two touchdowns, but A.J. Rose proved he’s more than capable of providing big yards behind Snell and followed Kentucky’s star running back with 104 yards on eight carries and a pair of touchdowns.
“We woke him up,” said Snell, who received fluids and was under medical watch prior to the opener. “It was a long time coming. We had this talk before the season and it’s all coming into play now.”
Paced by Snell and Rose, Kentucky’s offense generated 427 total yards, including 299 on the ground and serving early notice that the Wildcats’ running game — as expected — will be the team’s strength this season.
“I felt like we bounced back, and we didn’t let it (the first half) define us,” Hoak said. “We came back, put together some nice drives and put some points on the board.”
Terry Wilson’s highly-anticipated debut wasn’t a thing of beauty. The junior college transfer threw for 78 yards but had a fumble and a pair of interceptions in the opening half before leaving the game after taking a hit near the end of the first half. He returned in the second half and finished out the contest after Stoops inserted him back into the lineup in the third quarter.
Gunnar Hoak, who lost the quarterback battle to Wilson during preseason workouts, guided the Wildcats to a go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter, providing a boost to a Kentucky offense that needed a shot in the arm following a dismal performance.
The performance by Hoak impressed Stoops.
“What a moment to come in there and we’re losing in the first half,” he said. “… (it) said an awful lot about Gunnar, his character, and his ability,” he said.
Stoops doesn’t know if he will play both quarterbacks in the future, especially in next week’s Southeastern Conference opener at Florida, but will make that determination closer to game time.
“I anticipate that both guys will be ready to play,” he said. “We’ll see where we’re at this week and get back to work … both guys will be ready to go.”
As for Wilson, the junior college transfer isn’t looking back and hopes the Wildcats build on the second-half performance.
“We got the win,” he said. “That was the first thing, the major thing we needed to do. I got off to a slow start. I had a little jitter in me. I feel like in the second half we came out and did what we were supposed to do. We just have to come out earlier with that attitude.”
Gametracker: Kentucky at Florida, 7:30 p.m. Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM WBUL, Lexington.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.