The "New" Commonwealth Stadium: Construction crews and UK Athletics officials have been working around the clock in an effort to get the $120-million renovation complete for the season opener. At times, it looked like an impossible task, but they pulled it off. The new-look CWS was met with overwhelmingly-positive reviews, and even though the home of the Cats lost about 6,000 seats in the process, it actually looks and feels much bigger with the south-side press box and luxury seats hanging above the upper level. Everyone from Mitch Barnhart to Mark Stoops to the UK players asked for the fans to respond with the first home sellout of the Stoops era, and Big Blue Nation delivered. In return, they got a thoroughly-entertaining game -- perhaps a bit too entertaining -- but went home with smiles on their faces.
Boom Goes The Dynamite: Has there ever been a better start to the season than the one UK experienced Saturday? Sophomore running back Stanley "Boom" Williams raced 75 yards for a touchdown on the Cats' first snap of the season. An already-energized CWS crowd instantly turned it up another notch to 11 on the Spinal Tap dial. Williams, one of the country's most dangerous "home run" threats, notched his fourth TD run of 50 yards or longer in only his 13th collegiate game. He finished with 135 yards on 10 carries, making some wonder in the aftermath why he didn't get a few more touches in the second half.
The Juice Crew: Media only got to see two UK practices in fall camp leading up to the opener, but that was enough of a look to believe that this might be the deepest corps of wide receivers that UK has fielded in years. Against ULL, they backed that up. The Cats were channeling Lionel Richie, getting open all night long, and had quarterback Patrick Towles been more accurate throughout the night on easy throws, the offense could have put up truly eye-popping numbers. UK missed on at least two throws (three times, maybe) that could have been touchdowns. Six different receivers caught passes, led by Garrett "Juice" Johnson's five receptions for 85 yards and a touchdown. Three different receivers caught TD passes - Johnson, Jeff Badet and Blake Bone.
The Big Blue Tornadoes: Former Paducah Tilghman High School stars Josh Forrest and J.D. Harmon had a huge combined effort on an otherwise rough night for the UK defense. Forrest, a senior linebacker, had 15 tackles, three pass break-ups and an interception. Harmon, a junior cornerback, had six tackles, a forced fumble and an interception. Together, they accounted for three of ULL's four turnovers, which may have wound up being the difference in the game. Harmon also added a slick 60-yard kickoff return when ULL kicked short to avoid putting it in explosive freshman Sihiem King's hands.
Unheralded Big Play: Nobody ever really wants to talk about special teams, but I have made the case entering this season that UK specialists Austin MacGinnis and Landon Foster could end up being co-MVPs for this season if the Cats play as many close games as we anticipate. Last night, with ULL surging back to a 33-33 tie, the Cats took possesson and went 3-and-out at their own 31. A real sense that UK could actually lose this game was starting to build in CWS. Insert Foster, who boomed a 49-yard punt to flip the field and put the Cajuns at their own 20. The UK defense responded with a 3-and-out of their own, and the Cats scored the go-ahead TD on their next possession after taking the ball in great field position at the 42. Foster posted an average of 45.5 yards on four punts with a long of 52 against ULL.
Losing My Reception: It was an odd start to the season for junior quarterback Patrick Towles. If one did not see the game, a glance at his final stat line wouldn't look too bad: 257 yards, three touchdowns, one interception. Forty points on the board. A solid game. But after a 10-for-18 start and a 194.4 QBR at the half, Towles completed only six of his final 16 attempts, and many of those targets were running either wide open or with a nice step or two on the defender. The end result has many questoning whether he has been able to solve the accuracy issues that plagued him in the second half of the 2014 season. It's way too early to panic, but the Cats have Drew Barker waiting in the wings coming off a strong showing in spring and fall camp, and the staff won't likely hesitate to give him a look if Towles continues to be inconsistent. Perhaps the biggest fear is that he knows this, too, and may start pressing a bit next week at South Carolina.
Run-DMissing: This one is tough to gauge. One the one hand, who IS stopping the read-open game out the spread in college football? Turn on any game in any conference, and you're seeing defensive coodinators pull what's left of their hair out over this offensive scheme. On the other hand, you ARE an SEC progam that's been telling your fans that you're bigger, stronger and faster every year. To keep recruiting at a high level and see 247 yards rushing and a 5.3 average on a Sun Belt Conference opponent's stat sheet is discouraging. I'm willing to take a wait-and-see approach, though, until the Cats get linebackers Ryan Flannigan and Jason Hatcher back on the field. It's asking a lot to lose those two players (on top of defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith to the NFL) and replace them with true freshmen.
Where Were The Tight Ends? After hearing all spring and summer about Kentucky having its best tight ends in years, neither C.J. Conrad nor Darryl Long were targeted during the season opener. That may have been the biggest surprise of the night.
By The Numbers:
- 1st - Extra-point miss of UK kicker Austin MacGinnis' career, which loomed large late in the game.
- 2 - Only sacks by the Cats against an offense that dropped back to throw more than 41 times.
- 5.3 - Average yards per carry by ULL.
- 88 - Total offensive plays run by the Cajuns, 28 more than what UK posted.
- 479 - Total yards for ULL, topping UK's figure by 44 yards.
- 37:05 - Time of possession for Cajuns against a UK offense that was often feast or famine.