A strong defensive performance led the way in Kentucky football’s 44-14 win over Ball State to open the 2023 season.
The Wildcats led 30-7 midway through the third quarter before Ball State broke through with several backups on the field for the Wildcats. Included in those 30 points were a defensive touchdown from senior safety Jalen Geiger and a 46-yard field goal set up by a short field resulting from another fumble recovery.
Playing his first game as a Wildcat, N.C. State quarterback transfer Devin Leary completed 18 of 31 passes for 241 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Running back Ray Davis, a Vanderbilt transfer, rushed for 112 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. Sophomore wide receiver Dane Key caught five passes for 96 yards and one touchdown. Sophomore wide receiver Barion Brown returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.
Kentucky’s offense reached Ball State territory on five of its six first half drives but scored just one touchdown. Those struggles were negated by the defense limiting Ball State to just 88 yards in the first half with two turnovers.
UK put the game out of reach on its first drive of third quarter when Leary threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Key. Ball State scored a touchdown on its next drive, but Brown returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown to ensure there was no threat of a comeback.
Kentucky’s lead was just 10-7 midway through the second quarter when the defense provided the play needed to alleviate some pressure on a misfiring offense. As linebacker Trevin Wallace tackled Ball State tight end Tanner Koziol, nickel back Alex Afari delivered a hard hit to pop the ball loose. The ball bounced into the arms of Geiger, who returned it 69 yards for a touchdown. The call on the field stood after replay review, giving Geiger a touchdown in his first game since suffering a season-ending knee injury last September. Kentucky followed with two more field goals to take a comfortable 23-7 lead into halftime.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Mark Stoops offered some appropriate foreshadowing Thursday when he told reporters the staff was “a little anxious to see (Wallace) cut it loose and go play.” Wallace looked like Kentucky’s best player for much of the afternoon, finishing the game with 12 tackles, two tackles for loss and one-half sack. His tackle set up Geiger’s fumble return for a touchdown. His sack ended Ball State’s first drive of the second half, helping ensure there was no risk of a comeback.
After a season of snapping, holding and kicking issues for Kentucky a year ago, a perfect afternoon for the new field goal unit was a needed confidence boost. Georgia Southern transfer Alex Raynor was perfect on field goals (3 for 3) and extra points (5 for 5). Raynor converted two field goals from 46 yards, just one yard short of his career long. The last of those field goals just squeaked over the crossbar, so it remains to be seen if coaches will often ask him to attempt kicks from 50 yards or longer.