Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s closer than expected win over Chattanooga

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In addition to my column, three takeaways from Kentucky football’s 28-23 win over Chattanooga on Saturday at Kroger Field:

1. Saturday is what a letdown looks like

After an important 35-28 win over Missouri in a key SEC game last week, Kentucky had to avoid a letdown against the visiting FCS Moccasins on Saturday. The Wildcats got the victory, but they didn’t avoid the letdown.

After UK marched down the field on its opening possession to take a 7-0 lead — right on cue, right? — the Wildcats’ defense gave up a 48-yard run to Mocs running back Ailym Ford. That set the tone for the day. An experienced team with 72 of 76 lettermen returning from a year ago, Chattanooga hung right with the Wildcats all afternoon.

In fact, UTC led 16-14 early in the fourth quarter. To Kentucky’s credit, the Wildcats responded with a pair of touchdowns. The first came on offense. Quarterback Will Levis hit tight end Izayah Cummings with a 31-yard score. The second came on defense. Tyrell Ajian returned an interception 95 yards for the score that sealed the Kentucky victory.

Still, this was far from the Cats’ best performance. They knew it. Head coach Mark Stoops talked afterward about his displeasure. Linebacker Jacquez Jones said he sat in the locker room for 20 minutes thinking about how poorly the team played. Levis called the victory a “wake-up call.”

If the Cats thought they had “arrived” with last week’s win, they found out differently on Saturday. Luckily, the lesson didn’t result in a loss, as well.

2. Kentucky’s defense has some work to do

The Wildcats gave up 28 points in the win over Mizzou. Saturday, they gave up 23 to the Mocs. More worrisome, they allowed Chattanooga to rush for 171 yards on 28 carries, an average of 6.1 yards per attempt. Besides that early 48-yard run by Ford, Tyrell Price ripped off a 33-yard run in the fourth quarter.

Stoops said part of the problem was defenders not staying in their gaps. Defensive coordinator Brad White also said players found themselves out of position at times. And give credit to Chattanooga. The Mocs looked like a much better offense than the one that had scored just 20 points in each of its first two games.

As for the UK defense, however, the Wildcats appear to be in the process of trying to find the right fits for the right situations. The pass rush is still a problem. Chattanooga threw 35 passes but Kentucky was not credited with a sack. The Cats did force their second turnover of the season — that Ajian interception.

Starting outside linebacker Jordan Wright did not play Saturday. Backup freshman linebacker Martez Thrower was also out. But Stoops didn’t feel like Wright’s absence was an excuse for the defensive performance. “We’ve got to do better,” he said.

3. Now the real fun begins

Despite the performance, the Cats are 3-0 overall, including 1-0 in the SEC. Next on the schedule is seven consecutive SEC games, starting with Saturday’s trip to South Carolina. The Missouri put Stoops’ troops in a good spot, but the season will rise and fall with how the Cats do in conference competition.

So far, I like what I see from Liam Coen’s offense. Levis has now thrown four interceptions on the season, but he responded well Saturday when the Cats fell behind in the fourth quarter. He doesn’t appear to be the type of quarterback who hangs his head when he makes a mistake. He wants to get back out there.

Not using Chris Rodriguez more on Saturday was a head-scratcher. UK’s star back had rushed for 198 yards the week before. But given the opponent, you can’t blame Coen for wanting to see what other weapons he might have on his offense. After all, Rodriguez carried the ball 27 times last week. And there are still nine more games left in the regular season.

As for the defense, it’s easy to forget that White and Stoops are dealing with a lot of new faces. Only one starter returned on the defensive line. The Cats lost a linebacker who was the 19th overall pick in the NFL Draft. And the secondary has been depleted by the absence of three players currently sitting out while they face charges for an incident at a fraternity back in March.

Most of all, Kentucky played without an edge Saturday against an FCS opponent. It must get that edge back in preparation for Saturday night’s game in Columbia. The guess here is that it will.

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