Cats use big second half to hold off gritty Colonels

Published 9:21 am Monday, September 11, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Mark Stoops is undefeated against Eastern Kentucky University, and all three wins have been close calls, including the latest meeting on Saturday.

The Wildcats (2-0) scored on three of their four possessions in the second half and held on for a 28-17 win over the Colonels at Kroger Field. The close margin between the two teams has become routine since the Wildcats scored at least 50 points in the 1998 and 2007 encounters, Kentucky has edged Eastern by a combined margin of 29 points in the last three games.

“It does not surprise me that they bounced back (from last week) and played one heck of a game,” Stoops said. “That’s the team that I expect to play right there. And you have to earn it, you have to work and you have to beat them.”

Email newsletter signup

As for his own squad, Stoops was pleased with his team’s improvement from the opening week, although it was a slow progression for his team’s offense against the gutsy Colonels.

“This week we played a little better complementary football,” he said. “When the offense was struggling early in the first half, the defense got two turnovers and some stops, and we were consciously not wanting to give up long drives and try to get the offense in rhythm and, you know, a little more aggressive and got stops and turnovers that I thought were big.”

The Colonels, coming off a 66-13 drubbing at Cincinnati in their opener a week ago, had nothing to lose in their short trek to Lexington and it showed, especially in the first half. Kentucky scored its first touchdown with 42 seconds remaining in the opening half on Devin Leary’s 24-yard touchdown strike to Tayvion Robinson to force a 7-7 deadlock at the break.

The Leary-to-Robinson connection was effective for Kentucky. Leary threw for 299 yards and four touchdowns, while Robinson hauled in six passes for 136 yards and a touchdown.

Seeking a better showing than it did against Ball State, the Wildcats managed just seven points in the first two quarters before showing flashes of offensive brilliance it showed during the first tenure of the Liam Coen era two years ago.

Kentucky crossed the goal line three times in the second half and scored on back-to-back possessions after the Colonels (0-2) kicked a field goal on their opening drive of the half for a 10-7 advantage. The two scores by Kentucky on its next two possessions proved to be the difference.

“In the first half, we just went through the motions,” Coen said. “I don’t want say that in a negative way toward how our players played and they played hard. … I do believe that we did get into a rhythm in the second half and we did some good things and ultimately leave the stadium with some confidence.”

Eastern Kentucky standout quarterback Parker McKinney threw for 219 yards and a touchdown to lead the Colonels. McKinney’s scrambles in the pocket gave Kentucky’s defense issues throughout the contest.

“We struggled more than I anticipated,” Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White said. “It started with communication, with calls and the very first third down. We’ve got to get everybody on the same page and see the call. It’s not good enough, but again, it’s never as bad as you think and never as good as you think. That sounds like coach-speak, but it is what it is.”

Eastern coach Walt Wells liked the way his team competed after the poor performance in the opener.

“I’m pleased with our improvement,” Wells said. “If everybody looks at the score, obviously we improved. … there’s a standard that we have to play with every week. Every week we want to get into the fourth quarter and we didn’t get in the fourth quarter — we didn’t even get into the first quarter last week. But we got into the fourth quarter and, if you give yourself a chance in the fourth quarter, that’s all you can ask in this game.”