Lopsided win harder than it looked for Wildcats in rout of Ball State

Published 9:39 am Monday, September 4, 2023

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All eyes were on Kentucky’s offense in the season opener against Ball State on Saturday at Kroger Field.

The return of Liam Coen as offensive coordinator and the addition of transfer quarterback Devin Leary and running back Ray Davis led to great anticipation following last season’s 7-6 roller-coaster ride. The transfer tandem produced big numbers as Leary threw for 241 yards and a touchdown, while Davis rushed for 112 yards and two touchdowns.

The final numbers were deceiving in what Kentucky coach Mark Stoops considered a frustrating victory. Frustrating because Kentucky managed just 357 yards in a 44-14 win over the Cardinals, and Stoops wasn’t happy with his team’s rhythm on offense from start to finish.

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“We’re always going to respect anything and enjoy and appreciate any victory,” he said. “It was certainly one where, you know, you won by quite a bit. We will take the good from this.

“There’s a lot that we did good. And I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but it feels like that’s what’s coming out of my mouth right now. (I’m) very aggravated at a lot of things. You know, it’s without giving excuses either, it’s like it was one of those games.”

Much like his coach, Leary felt the Wildcats weren’t clicking on all cylinders at times against the Cardinals. Leary made his first appearance in more than a year, coming off a season-ending injury at North Carolina State, and was glad to experience his first taste of victory at Kentucky.

“We got the win,” he said. “It’s been a little while since I was able to play in a game, but definitely happy walking away with a win. But at the same time, a lot of guys understand we left a lot of plays out there.”

Those plays, Coen said, were the result of miscommunication issues between the offensive line and the playmakers.

“I thought they did a nice job with a lot of problems,” he said. “Operation problems with plays, executing things the way you want him executed. You want to come out of that with a clean operation and that was probably reflective in a lot of ways.”

As dominating as the final outcome seemed, the obvious improvement was Kentucky’s special teams unit, which accounted for 16 points in the lopsided contest.

Kicker Alex Raynor connected on field goals of 41- and two from 46 yards – while kick returner Barion Brown had a 99-yard return for a touchdown, marking the second time the wide receiver has scored a TD on a special teams play to open the season. He pulled off the same feat against Miami of Ohio a year ago in his collegiate debut.

“(We are) overall very improved with that unit,” Stoops said. “I still think, you know, we have a good football team. We’ve just got a lot to work on.”

He hopes to see improvement from the opener to the second game will be evident against Eastern Kentucky on Saturday. Cincinnati thumped EKU 66-13 later Saturday.

“I hope that’s the case this week,” Stoops said of the second game improvement. “I know we’re going to go to work and look to improve and look to build off the good things we did in the areas where we fell short. We’ve got to address them and get better.”

Leary believes the Wildcats can make a giant leap in a seven-day span.

“Obviously, the win is really good and, at the same time, there’s so much that we can correct, so much that we can get better at — kind of in a sense get back to the drawing board,” he said. “(We) also appreciate winning because winning is still hard at the end of the day.”

It was harder than it looked for the Wildcats.