“A wake-up call” is Kentucky quarterback Will Levis called it. He’s the Kentucky quarterback. His SEC Cats were heavy favorites over FCS Chattanooga on Saturday at Kroger Field. Instead, UK survived 28-23. The Cats are 3-0. And unhappy.
“We’ve got to be better,” said head coach Mark Stoops with his team facing its first road trip of the young season, its first SEC road game of the season, at South Carolina on Saturday for a 7 p.m. kickoff on ESPN2.
Here are three areas where the Cats have to get better before boarding the plane for Columbia.
1. Better ball security
A season ago, Kentucky was 12th nationally in turnover margin. It turned the ball over a mere 12 times in 11 games, while forcing 22 turnovers. Sixteen were interceptions. UK’s final turnover margin: Plus-10.
This season, the Cats are headed in the opposite direction. Through three games, they’ve turned the ball over eight times. They forced just two. Turnover margin: Minus-six.
To be sure, UK’s lone forced turnover Saturday was huge. Senior safety Tyrell Ajian picked off a Chattanooga pass at his own 5-yard line late in the fourth quarter and dashed 95 yards for a touchdown and a 28-16 Kentucky lead with 7:40 remaining.
On the flip side, Levis has thrown four interceptions in three games. He was picked off twice Saturday. The Cats have lost four fumbles, including one Saturday when Levis lost the ball on a fourth-down strip sack.
“The good news is … we’re 3-0,” Stoops said. “I want it to even out, I hope, and we need to get some turnovers and we need to protect the ball.”
2. Better run defense
No sooner had the Kentucky defense been handed a 7-0 lead Saturday, than there went Chattanooga running back Ailym Ford popping into the wide-open spaces of the Kentucky secondary for a 48-yard gain. And just when you thought the Cats had the holes plugged, Ford’s backfield teammate, Tyrell Price, ripped off a 33-yard run late.
Overall, Chattanooga rushed for 171 yards on 28 carries. That’s 6.1 yards per attempt. That’s from a team that scored 20 points on FCS teams in each of its first two games. And six of its 20 points in a blanking of North Alabama came on a pick-six.
“I don’t want to get too technical, but we didn’t fit properly on some things,” Stoops said afterward. “As you mix things up, as you do more, you’ve got to know how to play everything.”
On the one hand, Kentucky has a senior-laden defense. On the other hand, not all the seniors started last year. Jones was a starter at Ole Miss. Outside linebacker Jordan Wright did not play Saturday. With three of its players facing charges for a fraternity party incident in March, the secondary is thin.
Note: Kentucky defeated South Carolina 41-18 last December in Lexington. But the Gamecocks rushed for 297 yards.
3. Better mindset
Let’s face it, the Cats were too fat and happy last week. Too many back-pats after the big 35-28 win over Missouri. Not enough talk about how Chattanooga was an experienced team — 72 of 76 lettermen returning from 2020 — that played good, sound football. Result: Overconfident Cats.
UK can’t fall into the same trap Saturday. South Carolina was blitzed 40-13 at Georgia on Saturday, but Georgia might be the best team in the country.
Plus, South Carolina is playing at home. This will be Levis’ first road SEC game as Kentucky’s quarterback and Williams-Brice Stadium is no picnic for opponents. It can be loud. It can be obnoxious, with “Sandstorm” and the Gamecock call blaring through loud speakers at every opportunity. It can be intimidating.
For the most part, Kentucky has fared well in Columbia under Stoops, splitting four games. Its last visit was not so good, however. Carolina won 24-7 in 2019. Kentucky will be the better team Saturday, but if the Cats aren’t careful, that could happen again.
Said Stoops on Saturday, “(Let’s) worry about getting better.”
Kentucky at South Carolina
When: 7 p.m. Saturday