Maxwell Smith runs for a first down. (Photo by Jon Hale)
Little went right for the UK football team in its season-opening loss to Louisville, but Saturday the Wildcats found plenty to build on in a 47-14 win versus Kent State.
The UK offense started slowly, and the Wildcats trailed 7-0 after one quarter, but sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith found his stride in the second quarter en route to the blowout win. He completed 30 of 39 pass attempts for 354 yards and four touchdowns in the game.
“As hard as they work, you needs to see some successful things happen, and they did tonight,” said UK head coach Joker Phillips. “What happens is everybody wants to be a part of it.”
There was plenty of that success to go around.
Senior wide receiver Aaron Boyd posted a career-high 11 catches for 100 yards and one touchdown. Entering the season, Boyd had six career catches for 51 yards.
Junior tailback Raymond Sanders posted his first career 100-yard rushing game with 13 carries for 126 yards and one touchdown.
The Wildcat offense did not lack for big plays either.
Sanders scored on a 67-yard run. Junior tailback Jonathan George scored on a 38-yard carry. Freshman wide receiver DeMarcus Sweat scored on a screen pass that he took for 56 yards.
“I think hopefully this will be something that we can feed off of because there were things that we talked about,” Phillips said. “There were some big plays. We ran the ball efficiently, and we protected the football. Then we got ourselves off the field when we needed.”
After being gashed for 466 yards in the loss to Louisville, the Wildcat defense showed some signs of improvement against Kent State. The defense still surrendered 409 total yards but had given up just 266 yards through three quarters when the game was essentially finished.
“Saw some improvement,” Phillips said. “With who we have left on our schedule, we’ve got to improve a lot more.”
After a rash of alignment and adjustment mistakes in week one, defensive coordinator Rick Minter simplified the defensive scheme in practice this week. That move allowed him to play several freshmen and move normal strongside linebacker Alvin Dupree to the weakside.
The move of Dupree had several benefits.
“The first thing is to shore up that spot, to put somebody out there that’s got a physical presence,” Minter said. “Secondly, it’s a promotion of Taylor Wyndham (at strongside linebacker) to keep him on the field full-time, not just be a role guy.”
The defense kept Kent State off the scoreboard for the first three possessions, but tailback Dri Archer raced his way to a 47-yard score with 1:54 left in the first quarter.
UK tied the game on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Boyd with 14:04 in the second quarter, then took the lead on Sanders’ 67-yard touchdown run with eight minutes left before halftime. Senior kicker Craig McIntosh converted a 47-yard field goal as time expired to give UK a 17-7 lead at halftime.
Kent state pulled within three points with a 26-yard touchdown run with 4:26 left in the third quarter, but UK immediately answered with an 18-yard touchdown pass from Smith to senior wide receiver Gene McCaskill one minute later.
The Wildcats would score again on a safety, George’s run, an 11-yard pass from Smith to senior wide receiver La’Rod King and Sweat’s long reception.
Smith finished the game with the most passing yards for a UK quarterback since Andre’ Woodson threw for 430 yards against Tennessee in 2007.
“I thought he played really well tonight,” said offensive coordinator Randy Sanders of Smith. “He’s seeing things well. Usually when a quarterback sees well and is able to play fast, you know he is prepared.”
Despite the impressive showing, Smith said the offense has plenty of room for improvement.
“Things can always get better,” he said. “I can hit La’Rod on that deep ball early in the first quarter. I can put balls in better places. Our offensive line can block better. Our running backs can run better. We can keep getting better.”
The UK coaching staff undoubtedly agrees with Smith’s assessment, but for at least one night they were happy for a little success.
“Last week was a trophy game,” Minter said. “This was no trophy game. This was all about pride and all about the feeling you want to feel at 11 o’clock. We talked about how we want to feel at 11 o’clock. That’s what we work for.”