Mark Stoops was not a happy camper. His Kentucky football team had won its opener by 30 points. Kentucky scored a defensive touchdown. Kentucky scored a special teams touchdown. Kentucky went 3 for 3 on field goals. Kentucky is 1-0 on the season. It wasn’t enough.
“Just drives me up a wall,” the UK coach said after the 44-14 victory over Ball State on Saturday at Kroger Field.
Stoops was talking about mistakes. Big mistakes. Little mistakes. Mental errors. Sure, the first game of the season a coach expects a few flubs here and there. To Stoops, there were too many flubs. In all the wrong places.
“We’ve seen 35,000 (bootlegs),” continued the coach, his delivery picking up steam, referencing when a quarterback takes the football in the opposite way of his blocking, hoping to catch the defense off balance. “Our offense runs boots very well, and (our defense) couldn’t even come close to (stopping) one. You know what I mean, in practice because we see it, we feel it, we anticipate it. Then we go play a new team and a boot is wide-open by 20 yards and it’s like we’ve never seen a boot. Just drives me up a wall.”
Want to know why Stoops was animated after a 30-point win? Simple. He thinks this team has a chance to be good. Very good. He knows tougher opponents await. Much tougher. His expectations are high. He wants expectations met. Nor is he the only one.
“The standard is high,” offensive coordinator Liam Coen said after his first game back as UK’s play-caller. “We’re talented, but it’s not about one individual player. It’s about us as an operation, as a unit and I think some of the guys need to understand that.”
For Coen, there were too many “operation” errors. Pre-snap penalties. Open receivers missed. Blocks unfinished. It was the first game new quarterback Devin Leary had used a wristband for the play calls. Sometimes, Coen said, Leary would read the wrong play off the wristband.
“I know he’s a little frustrated at the moment,” Coen said, “but we’ll get that turned around quick.”
Even amid the imperfections, UK’s talent is obvious. Sophomore speedster Barion Brown returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. New running back Ray Davis, the Vanderbilt transfer, gained 112 rushing yards, including a 30-yard TD late. Sophomore wideout Dane Key caught five passes for 96 yards and a score.
Brad White’s defense was opportunistic. Defensive back Alex Afari forced one fumble; cornerback Maxwell Hairston another. Jalen Geiger scooped up the loose ball after Afari’s hit and continued 69 yards for a touchdown. Plus, the Cats were credited with three sacks.
There was one potentially significant setback. Veteran offensive left guard Kenneth Horsey suffered an injury in the second quarter and did not return. Postgame, Stoops said he had no info on the severity of Horsey’s injury. It didn’t look good, however. Losing Horsey for a stretch will test the O-line depth UK tried to build in the offseason.
“I told the team we’re going to get a lot better between week one and two,” Stoops said. “Everybody talks about that’s the most improvement you make each year, and I hope that’s the case this week.”
Hope isn’t a strategy. More is required. Friendly FCS foe Eastern Kentucky visits Kroger Field this week. The Colonels will be itching to atone for a 66-13 drubbing at Cincinnati on Saturday. EKU coach Walt Wells and Stoops are tight. Akron, another MAC team, comes calling Sept. 16. The Zips lost 24-21 at Temple on Saturday. Then Sept. 23, UK opens SEC play at Vanderbilt. It’s “game on” from there on out.
Bottom line from game one: Stoops has high expectations because he believes this team has a high ceiling.
“I do,” he said Saturday, before adding, “We got to get better. We got to be smoother. At least that’s how it feels. Just gets frustrating sometimes when you walk off the field and some things just stick in your head. But we will go to work, I know that. This group will be good.”