Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s 44-14 season-opening victory over Ball State on Saturday at Kroger Field:
1. Mark Stoops was aggravated with UK’s play
Embarking on his 11th season in Lexington, UK head coach Mark Stoops opened his postgame press conference that first and foremost he was happy to win the game, that he will always respect a win and should always enjoy a win.
“If you can’t do that then you’ve got a problem,” Stoops said a little later in the same press conference. “So I guess I’ve got a problem.”
Despite the 30-point victory, Stoops thought his team did not play all that well. There were “aggravating” mistakes and plays that “drove me up a wall.” Many of those errors were mental errors, execution errors, pre-snap penalties, information errors, things that happen in a first game but no coach likes to see happen in any game.
Offensive coordinator Liam Coen felt the same way. In his first game back after spending the 2022 season with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, Coen thought there were too many “operational” errors on his side of the ball.
“The standard is high,” Coen said afterward. “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.”
2. Devin Leary had an up-and-down UK debut
It had been awhile since quarterback Devin Leary had played in a football game. He tore his pectoral muscle against Florida State as a member of the North Carolina State Wolfpack back on Oct. 8, 2022. Saturday was not just his first game as a Wildcat but his first game in nearly a year.
How’d he do? There was both good and bad. First play of the game, Leary hit sophomore wide receiver Dane Key for a 44-yard gain. Hen then proceeded to miss on four of his next five passes. By halftime, Leary was merely 8 of 20 through the air for 144 yards with one interception and zero touchdowns. Not the pinpoint passer we had been told to expect.
The second half was better. Much better, by the numbers. Leary was 10 of 11 through the air to end up 18 of 31 for 241 yards with a score and a pick. Not terrific, but not terrible either.
Still, he wasn’t quite on his game. Coen mentioned that it was the first time the quarterback had played off a wristband and on occasion he made the wrong play-call. There were also timing issues on snaps with new center Jager Burton. And it is a whole new group of receivers for the senior from New Jersey.
“At the end of the day, he didn’t hurt us,” Coen said of Leary. “It was his first game back in a long time of playing football and I was just glad to see him having fun playing football again. I know he’s a little frustrated at the moment, but we’ll get that turned around quick.”
3. Special teams were noticeably improved
After last year’s struggles on special teams, Stoops went out and hired Jay Boulware as his running backs coach and special teams coordinator. The Cats added place-kicker Alex Raynor from Georgia Southern through the transfer portal. The staff put more emphasis on the return and coverage games.
Through one game, so far, so very good. Raynor was 3 for 3 on field goals, hitting from 41, 46 and 46 yards. And the speedy Barion Brown repeated his opening-game feat from a year ago, this time returning a kickoff 99 yards for a score.
“We are improved,” Stoops said afterward. “I think everybody enjoyed seeing the field goal kicker kick it through the uprights.”
Brown’s take-it-to-the-house return happened right after Ball State had cut UK’s lead to 30-14 late in the third quarter.
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) September 2, 2023
“That was big,” teammate Deone Walker said, “because they had just scored.”
Raynor was big, too. The senior is now 7 of 8 from 40 yards and beyond over the last two seasons. He was 4 of 5 last year from that distance for Georgia Southern. And with 11 games to go, these Cats are likely to be in some close games where field goals matter.