John Clay: In defeating Missouri, this Kentucky team shows it's capable of a special season
And suddenly, for this Kentucky football team, big things seem possible.
We're talking Kentucky football. We're talking UK's 35-28 victory over the visiting Missouri Tigers on Saturday night. We're talking about Mark Stoops' squad now being 2-0 overall, 1-0 in the SEC and the proud owners of a significant September victory that opened the doors — fingers crossed — for what could be a special season.
We're talking about a team that can score points. Through two games, that has made all the difference for these 2021 Wildcats. So far, the hiring of offensive coordinator Liam Coen has been a smashing success. First, UK's new-look attack dialed up the deep ball to put up 45 points on lowly ULM. Saturday night, before a crowd in full throat, Coen dialed it back to the ground game to stack 35 points on Mizzou.
"We wanted to establish the run," Coen said afterward.
Mission accomplished. Coen threw an Eddie Gran number at the Tigers, rolling up 340 yards on the ground. Chris Rodriguez rushed for 206 and three touchdowns. (A lost fumble in the end zone kept him from four scores.) He averaged 7.7 yards per carry. Wan'Dale Robinson flew 64 yards on a jet sweep. Quarterback Will Levis lowered his shoulder for key first downs.
"I woke up feeling fast today," Levis said afterward.
What was Rodriguez's reaction to his QB going all bully ball on Mizzou?
"That dude is different," said the junior running back.
These Cats are different. You know, the points thing. After Missouri tied the game at 28-all with 13:11 remaining in the game, Kentucky zipped right back down the field, covering 75 yards in a mere five plays to retake the lead and ultimately the game. Rodriguez ripped off a 28-yard run. Two players later, in what was Coen's best play call of the night — "Coach (Vince) Marrow was pushing for it," said the OC of UK's tight ends coach — Levis threw a screen pass that tight end Justin Rigg turned into a 28-yard gain. One play later, the Cats were back in the end zone, then held on to the final horn.
It's early, but Coen should be in the conversation for the nation's best new coordinator hire. UK gained 519 yards on a Missouri team that held the Cats to 10 points in a 10-point Tigers win last season. Credit Stoops and Coen with smartly naming Levis the starting quarterback early in camp. The Penn State transfer has given UK both a strong arm and a strong personality.
But did Rodriguez wonder if the new OC's arrival meant fewer chances to carry the football? Nope, the junior said Saturday. He'd seen the Los Angeles Rams offense, of which Coen had helped coach. Todd Gurley was one of Rodriguez's favorite players. "I wasn't worried," said the back.
Looking ahead to the rest of UK's schedule
Here's the bottom line: Imagine the possibilities. FCS program Chattanooga comes to Kroger Field on Saturday, then Kentucky plays its first road game, Sept. 25 at South Carolina. UK could be, make that should be 4-0 when Florida comes to Lexington on Oct. 2.
The Gators have been satisfactory in their first two games, wins over in-state schools FAU and USF. After that, LSU has struggled out of the gate. Ed Orgeron's team followed that 38-27 loss at UCLA with a ho-hum 34-7 win over McNeese State on Saturday.
After that Oct. 16 trip to Georgia, Kentucky could be favored in each of its final five games — Oct. 30 at Mississippi State; Nov. 6 Tennessee; Nov. 13 at Vanderbilt; Nov. 20 New Mexico State and Nov. 27 at Louisville. Mississippi State nearly lost its opener to Louisiana Tech. Tennessee lost at home to Pittsburgh. Vanderbilt lost at home to East Tennessee State. New Mexico State is already 0-3. Louisville trailed Ole Miss 26-0 at the half last Monday.
"Our best football is in front of us," Stoops cautioned Saturday.
OK, OK, we're a mere two games down, with 10 to go. But from what we've seen so far, this Kentucky team is capable of doing something special. Saturday night's victory made it so.