Before the analysis starts, one thing about about Kentucky’s offensive performance in Liam Coen’s much-anticipated return should be acknowledged.
UK’s 44-14 season-opening victory over Ball State was weird.
The Wildcats defense produced a scoop-and-score touchdown of 69 yards by safety Jalen Geiger and dynamic return man Barion Brown took a kickoff back for a 99-yard TD.
Those two scores — very good things for UK, obviously — played a large role in the Kentucky offense running only 51 plays.
“I looked up in the fourth quarter, and we’d only run, like, 44 plays,” Coen said afterward. “It’s hard to get a lot of people involved with not a lot of opportunities. It was nice to have a couple of TDs, defensively and special teams, for our team. But when you are trying to evaluate the offense, it’s hard to get those things done (with so few plays).”
Unlike two seasons ago, when Coen first called the Kentucky offense with the 2021 season opener, the Wildcats “O” did not produce “pinball machine” numbers Saturday.
UK finished with 357 total yards, 66 of which came on a final drive that yielded a Ray Davis touchdown run with seven seconds left in the game.
Two seasons ago, in Coen’s “first premiere” as UK offensive coordinator, the 2021 Wildcats hung 45 points and 564 total yards on Louisiana Monroe. In that game, the Wildcats’ then-new 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.
For the 2023 opener, Coen’s first game back since spending 2022 as Los Angeles Rams’ offensive coordinator, the UK attack produced some good things, but it never felt like the Wildcats got “in rhythm.”
“Solid at times,” was the postgame assessment of Kentucky coach Mark Stoops of his team’s offensive attack.
Said Coen: “We definitely would have liked to put out a little better performance than that.”
For new Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary, it was “a tale of two halves” vs. Ball State. The super-senior, a graduate transfer from North Carolina State, didn’t look especially comfortable in the pocket in half one. A 6-foot-1, 217-pound product of Sicklerville, New Jersey, Leary went 8 of 20 passing for 144 yards with one interception in the first half.
In half two, however, Leary completed 10 of 11 throws for 97 yards and a TD.
Given that Leary missed the final six games of last season after tearing a pectoral muscle, what appeared to be a “rusty” first half performance might have been expected.
“At the end of the day, he didn’t hurt us,” Coen said of Leary. “It’s his first game back in a long time of playing football. … I know he’s a little frustrated, but we’ll get that figured out quick.”
Coen noted that Saturday was also the first time Leary had played in a real game while wearing a wristband to utilize for identifying and calling plays.
“There are a lot of plays on that thing,” Coen said. “You can kind of lose sight of the play. Once you call the wrong play, you start to second-guess yourself.”
A season ago, the Kentucky offensive line surrendered four quarterback sacks to Miami (Ohio) in a season-opening 37-13 win. That foreshadowed a year in which the “Big Blue Wall” crumbled, giving up 57 sacks on the season.
So it was a positive Saturday that UK gave up only one sack and three tackles for loss against a veteran Ball State defensive front.
“A few times, we had opportunities for big plays and had a couple of busts,” Coen said. “… Overall, the line of scrimmage, for the most part, was being played on (Ball State’s) side of the field. That was good to see. So, I think mostly, (the UK offensive line did a) solid job.”
The most worrisome development for the Kentucky offensive line was the sight of super-senior left guard Kenneth Horsey being carted off the field after suffering an apparent left leg injury in the first half.
One thing that went unquestionably well for the Wildcats was the Kentucky debut of running back Ray Davis, the Vanderbilt transfer. Picking up where he left off at Kroger Field when he ran for 129 yards in Vandy’s upset of UK last November, Davis ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries.
“Just a really good runner,” Coen said of Davis.
Looking ahead, Leary figures to be sharper and more consistent with more reps with his new team. The Kentucky offense will presumably get more plays than 51 in future games to show what it can do.
Anyway, the most important thing to repeat from Coen’s first season as UK OC in 2021 wasn’t producing a stunning opener.
It is replicating the season-long improvement that the 2021 Kentucky offense made.
“The nice thing is,” Liam Coen said after Saturday’s uneven offensive showing, “is we can still coach (improvements).”