Fast start propels Kentucky past Vandy in SEC opener
Published 9:30 am Monday, September 25, 2023
Kentucky passed its first road test in its Southeastern Conference opener Saturday in Nashville.
The Wildcats (4-0, 1-0) raced out to an early 21-0 lead and defeated Vanderbilt 45-28. Kentucky won its first four games for the third straight season and avenged a 24-21 setback to the Commodores last year at Kroger Field.
“Obviously, it feels good to get on the road and get the first conference victory,” Stoops said. “I felt like the past couple of weeks we have been improving, gearing up and getting better in certain areas. … Getting off to a fast start on the road for an 11 a.m. (CST) kickoff was something of importance for us. We stressed that and it was great to see.”
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Kentucky scored three touchdowns in the first quarter that gave the Wildcats a cushion throughout the contest and also received a solid performance from defensive back Maxwell Hairston, who returned two interceptions for touchdowns, including a 54-yard return for a score in the fourth quarter. He had a 29-yard interception return for a TD in the first quarter. Hairston had three pass breakups and four tackles.
“I was just doing my job,” Hairston said on the SEC Network. “When you do your job, the ball just comes your way.”
Stoops said Hairston’s late score was “a big moment.”
“The pick was good,” Stoops said. “A stop was important at that point in the game, let alone a turnover and setting it up (a touchdown).”
Kentucky running back Ray Davis, a Vanderbilt transfer, rushed for 78 yards on 17 carries and a pair of touchdowns. His best run, a 38-yard jaunt on a second-and-24 in the fourth quarter, set up Devin Leary’s 22-yard touchdown pass to Dane Key.
Leary threw for 205 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions. Barion Brown, a Nashville native, caught four passes for 105 yards, and Key added 58 yards on four catches.
Kentucky scored the first 24 points before Vandy connected on a field goal and a touchdown to end the first half. Vanderbilt scored 13 in a row following the Wildcats’ explosive start.
“There were some moments in there that were sloppy,” Stoops said. “… it gets frustrating at times, and that’s why you have a team. I think defensively, we played well for the most part. We got a little out of sorts with tempo at the end of that first half, but we came back and set the tone early in the second half and played good football for the majority of the day.”