Five things you need to know from Kentucky’s 44-14 win over Ball State in UK’s 2023 college football season opener at Kroger Field:
1. Liam Coen’s return. After his 2022 season on the Los Angeles Rams coaching staff, the new/old UK offensive coordinator’s “second debut” was not quite the “wow” performance of the first.
With some extenuating circumstances, Kentucky finished Saturday with 357 total yards. Fourteen of UK’s 44 points were produced by a scoop-and-score and a kickoff return touchdown. Another seven points came on a touchdown with six seconds remaining. That final drive yielded 66 yards in a game whose outcome had already been decided.
Among the factors that limited Kentucky’s offensive output were that the Cats scored two non-offensive TDs. That helped limit to 51 the number of plays Coen’s offense got to run.
Two seasons ago, in Coen’s “first premier” as UK offensive coordinator, the 2021 Wildcats hung 45 points and 564 total yards on Louisiana Monroe.
In that game, Wildcats quarterback Will Levis threw for 367 yards and four touchdowns. Running back Christopher Rodriguez ran for 125 yards, while wideouts Josh Ali (136) and Wan’Dale Robinson (125) both went over 100 yards receiving.
ULM had gone winless the previous season and was breaking in a new head coach (Terry Bowden) and staff.
Last season, in Rich Scangarello’s first contest as Kentucky offensive coordinator, the Cats had 353 total yards in a 37-13 win over Miami (Ohio).
As for the current Wildcats, it probably should not be a huge surprise that an offense breaking in a new quarterback, new primary running back, new starting left tackle and a new/old coordinator looked like it will need some time to jell.
2. Leary’s launch. Devin Leary’s first game as Kentucky starting quarterback probably did not go as smoothly as he would have hoped. The super-senior QB looked a lot better in half two than half one.
A graduate transfer from North Carolina State, Leary finished 18 of 31 passing for 241 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
A Sicklerville, New Jersey, product, Leary looked uncomfortable in the pocket for a good bit of the first half. That ended with Leary having completed only eight of 20 passes for 144 yards with the pick.
Leary looked much more at ease in half two, when he completed 10 of 11 passes.
It’s not shocking that Leary, who was knocked out by injury after six games last season at North Carolina State, looked a little rusty in his first game back — with a brand new team.
Leary made two opening-game starts at N.C. State.
In 2021, he completed 17 of 26 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns with one interception in a 45-0 pasting of South Florida.
Last season, Leary went 17 of 33 for 211 yards with one touchdown and one pick as North Carolina State narrowly escaped an upset with a 21-20 win at East Carolina.
3. UK offensive line. In last year’s Kentucky opener vs. Miami (Ohio), the Wildcats surrendered four quarterback sacks and ran for only 50 total yards.
That effort provided foreshadowing of the offensive line struggles that would be ahead of Kentucky in 2022. As it turned out, the Wildcats gave up more QB sacks (47) last season than all but two teams. UK’s average rushing output (116.2) was the 24th-worst in the FBS.
It was better Saturday. The UK offensive line gave up only one sack, and that did not come until 8:27 left in the game.
New Kentucky running back Ray Davis, the former Vanderbilt star, found enough holes to run for 112 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries.
The worst thing for the “Big Blue Wall” was that veteran starting left guard Kenneth Horsey left the game in the first half with an apparent leg injury and had to be carted off the field. Dylan Ray, a transfer from West Virginia, assumed the left-guard position in Horsey’s absence.
4. Barion does it again. In Kentucky’s 2022 season opener, Barion Brown returned the opening kickoff of the second half 100 yards for a TD in UK’s 37-13 win over Miami (Ohio).
The dynamic playmaker from Nashville produced an opening-game encore Saturday, going 99 yards with a kickoff return with 28 seconds left in the third quarter to put UK ahead 37-13.
5. Mark Stoops’ numbers. With the UK win, Stoops is now 8-3 in season openers as Kentucky’s head coach.
Stoops is 17-2 vs. teams from the Group of Five conferences and has won 12 straight such games.
The Kentucky head man is 9-0 against Mid-American Conference opponents.
Under Stoops, UK is 47-25 in games played at Kroger Field.
Kentucky’s all-time winningest football coach, Stoops is 67-59 overall at UK.
For Stoops, the win over Ball State was Kentucky’s 17th straight regular season victory over non-conference opponents.
Clothes make the men
For its 2023 debut, Kentucky wore blue helmets atop blue jerseys with white letters and numbers and white pants.
It was the third straight season in which UK opened with the “blue, blue, white” uniform color combination.