The forward pass can be fun to watch. In Kentucky’s beatdown of ULM, the Wildcats showed that new offensive coordinator Liam Coen and quarterback Will Levis could keep the Big Blue Nation excited this fall.
The Wildcats tossed for 419 yards in the season-opening win to beat Terry Bowden in his debut at ULM. This was the first time the offense has recorded over 400 yards passing in a game since a 2014 win over FCS UT Martin. That will have people happy.
Next week’s contest with Missouri looms large, but there were more positives than negatives to pull from the big win.
After watching some fun football on Labor Day Saturday, here is what KSR learned about the Wildcats on Saturday afternoon.
Do you want deep balls? Kentucky football pushed the ball vertical early and often in Saturday’s win.
Will Levis tossed for 367 yards in just 26 pass attempts putting up a monster 14.12 yards per attempt, and a 61.54 percent success rate in his first start as a Wildcat. The efficiency in the short game was nice, but the effort to push the ball down the field was the major takeaway from Saturday.
The Penn State transfer completed three passes of 50-plus yards and four more of 20-plus yards. Kentucky can now stretch the field, and defenses can no longer stack the box.
A pick your poison strategy could be coming if the offense can continue on this development. Will Levis looked the part in his debut.
The defense got off to a slow start on Saturday thanks to some untimely penalties, but this group settled in quickly. That’s what you would expect from a veteran unit.
Six seniors — Yusuf Corker, Marquan McCall, Josh Paschal, Davonte Robinson, DeAndre Square, Jordan Wright — combined to record 10 tackles for loss and were responsible for limiting ULM to less than 100 yards of total offense. But the production wasn’t the only thing that occurred on the field.
In the second quarter, Corker and Square were all over redshirt sophomore K.D. McDaniel for being misaligned on a third down. This showed that the squad has great player leadership, and will give the unit a great chance at having a good season.
Production and leadership from seniors can be a dangerous combination.
Drops in bunches
There was a lot to love about the passing game. Both Josh Ali and Wan’Dale Robinson were explosive in the win recording 261 yards receiving on just 16 targets. Kentucky had a tight end touchdown on a third-down play-action, and the running backs were also targeted. Most have been calling for a more well-rounded passing game
However, there were way too many drops.
Will Levis had just eight incompletions and half of those could be recorded as drops. Ali had a pair with one on a slant route on the first possession of the game leading to an interception. Kavosiey Smoke recorded another in two-minute offense at the end of the first quarter.
The passing game was promising, but it could’ve been much better. Kentucky must get this issue cleaned up.
Improved pass rush
ULM was outmatched from the jump in this contest — there is no hiding from that. However, the Kentucky pass rush had major questions this season after finishing 113th nationally and 13th in the SEC in sack rate last season. This was following consecutive top-25 national finishes in both 2018 and 2019.
Defensive coordinator Brad White may have gotten the issue fixed in the offseason.
The Wildcats recorded six sacks during the game with five different players contributing. With a sack rate number of 23.08 percent, that will be hard to top for the rest of the season. However, this was not the only area of playmaking production.
With 14 total tackles for loss and two pass breakups, Kentucky posted a havoc rate of 25.4 percent. This all led to the Warhawks recording just 1.38 yards per play. It was a long day at the office for Rich Rodriguez.
The defense has high expectations in 2021, and the unit passed its first test on Saturday.
Inefficient rush attack
Over the last few seasons, Kentucky has owned one of the best rushing attacks in the SEC. The Wildcats just needed a passing game to allow the offense to create more explosive plays.
The explosives were there on Saturday, but the efficiency in the rushing game could use some improvement.
Chris Rodriguez Jr. finished with 125 yards on 19 carries, but the normal efficiency was not present for the redshirt junior. The Metro Atlanta native finished with a success rate of 47.37 percent after posting a 65.55 percent number in 2020. Three rushes of 15-plus yards contributed to most of his production.
The ground attack must start everything for this Kentucky offense. The Wildcats need more efficiency from their top player to allow the passing game to feast on defenses in the backend.
This will be an area of improvement moving forward. However, if the defenses are determined to stack the box and stop the run, Kentucky now has a counter with the passing game thanks to Will Levis’ big right arm.
Many good things occurred in the five touchdown win, but the sloppiness must be improved. Kentucky left a ton of points on the field.
The Wildcats were minus-three in the turnover column and had another fumble on a muffed punt that could’ve easily been recovered by ULM. Meanwhile, both Jordan Wright and Carrington Valentine had interception opportunities go through their hands.
Kentucky also finished the game with seven penalties for 65 yards, and a pair of those extended a possession and allowed ULM to grab a touchdown lead early in the ballgame.
There will be plenty of coaching points for Stoops and his staff to take up with the team this week in practice.