The Kentucky Wildcats opened their 2021 season in dominant fashion Saturday, taking down a rebuilding Louisiana-Monroe team 45-10 at Kroger Field.
For much of Big Blue Nation, the win was a breath of fresh air as Kentucky’s new-look offense threw the ball deep early and often as promised en route to totaling a combined 419 yards and four touchdown passes.
While there are mostly positives from Saturday’s win, there surely are some areas Kentucky need’s to clean up in order to take down division rival Missouri next week. Here’s a look at the three winners and losers from the Cats big Week 1 win.
3. Octavious Oxendine
In his second season playing for his home state school, Radcliff native and defensive tackle Octavious Oxendine had the best game of his young college career Saturday.
Looking to play a big role in the middle of Kentucky’s defensive line with Quinton Bohana in the NFL, Oxendine recorded five total tackles, three solo tackles and a tackle for loss and had a stretch where he recorded tackles on three straight plays to force a Warhawks punt.
He outplayed fellow defensive tackle Marquan McCall who recorded two total tackles, which could lead to increased playing time for the Commonwealth native.
2. J.J. Weaver
Oxendine wasn’t the only in-state product to have a big season opener. Louisville native J.J. Weaver who tore his ACL at Florida in late November last year, made his return to the gridiron and all he did was record two sacks.
There were many questions about whether or not Weaver would even be ready for the opener and instead, he leaves Week 1 as Kentucky’s team leader in sacks.
With Boogie Watson gone, the Cats need Weaver to help Jordan Wright and Josh Paschal get to the passer and he proved he’s healthy enough to do that plenty in 2021.
1. Will Levis and Liam Coen
The obvious big winners from Saturday’s win are starting quarterback Will Levis and new offensive coordinator Liam Coen. The duo provided exactly what Kentucky fans have been begging for: a balanced attack with plenty of deep shots downfield.
They did just that as Levis completed 18-26 of his passes for 347 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. He became the first UK quarterback since Drew Barker in 2016 to have a four-touchdown pass game. Levis took plenty of deep shots downfield, including a 58-yard touchdown bomb to Josh Ali, a 62-yard completion to WanDale Robinson and a 57-yard hookup with Isaiah Epps.
In addition to throwing deep, Coen was able to keep the run game in the picture as Chris Rodriguez ran the ball 19 times for 125 yards and a score. Mike Drennen entered the game late and also added a touchdown run.
Kentucky’s offense looked balanced, explosive and unpredictable, which is exactly what they’ve been needing for several years now to take the next step and win an SEC Eastern Division title.
3. Mark Stoops hopes for a clean game
All week, UK head coach Mark Stoops emphasized wanting a clean game from his Wildcats with limited penalties and ideally no turnovers.
That didn’t exactly pan out. Despite the lopsided victory, plenty of silly mistakes were made.
Kentucky made seven penalties compared to Lousiana-Monore’s three, including a personal foul on a Warhawks field goal attempt which gave them a fresh set of downs leading to their lone touchdown and lead of the game.
UK also had trouble with turnovers as Levis’ first Wildcat pass was intercepted off the hands of Ali, leading to that ULM touchdown. Backup quarterback Beau Allen and running back Kavosiey Smoke both fumbled, leading to turnovers as well as ULM won the turnover battle 3-0.
Lose the turnover 3-0 in an SEC game; bad things will happen.
2. Wan’Dale Robinson the punt returner
At the wide receiver position, Frankfort product Wan’Dale Robinson had an incredible Wildcat debut. In his first game in the Blue and White after transferring from Nebraska. He made five catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns which is exactly the type of production Kentucky is looking for from him.
However, as a punt returner, Robinson struggled mightily. He muffed his first chance and was lucky to recover as, despite several white ULM jerseys jumping on the ball, he was able to grab hold of the ball. He then made a pair of questionable decisions to return instead of settle for the fair catch that led to him taking big hits and not gaining much yardage.
Special teams’ play has always been an aid to Kentucky’s success in the Stoops era, so they’ll need much sharper play from Robinson as a punt returner to keep him in that role, or else they’ll likely look into other options.
1. Kavosiey Smoke
Kavosiey Smoke’s 2021 debut surely did not go as the junior would’ve wanted.
In the second quarter, Smoke hit ULM defenders with a few nifty moves for an eight-yard gain but on the same play fumbled the ball and gave the ball to the Warhawks. Later in the day, he dropped a Levis pass that if caught, likely would’ve gone for a touchdown.
On the day, Smoke ran five times for just 16 yards and did not make a catch out of the backfield. In order to hold off Drennan, Travis Tisdale and other running back positions to be Kentucky’s second back behind Rodriguez, he’ll have to tighten up his play next week.