Kentucky escapes upset bid, defeats Chattanooga 28-23


Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. (24) celebrates during UK’s game against Missouri on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 35-28. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Hunter Shelton

Kentucky defeated Chattanooga 28-23 on Saturday afternoon to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2018.  

While it wasn’t pretty, head coach Mark Stoops knows that a win is a win, by any means: 

Obviously the best thing about this, sitting right here, is we’re 3-0. But not very pleasedjust got to be better in all areas starting with myself. The staff, the players, I want to credit them,” Stoops said.  

ThMocs, an FCS program, gave Kentucky a scare for all four quarters, even leading 14-13 with 13:27 remaining in the game. 

Will Levis completed 23 of 35 passing attempts for 246 yards, tossing two touchdowns and two interceptions. Chattanooga quarterback Cole Copeland completed 21 of 35 attempts for 168 yards with a touchdown and an interception.  

Kentucky’s first drive of the afternoon was as smooth as it got for the Wildcats, a nine-play drive ended with Josh Ali scampering into the endzone on an 11-yard rushing touchdown. 

Ali caught five passes for 53 yards to go along with his rushing touchdown. Ali became the seventeenth receiver in UK history to catch 100 or more passes. 

 Wan’Dale Robinson led the team in receiving yards for the third game in a row, collecting seven passes for 111 yards. Robinson has recorded at least 100 yards receiving in all three games this season.  

The Mocs would respond quickly, scoring a touchdown of their own on Copeland’s first pass of the day, finding Reginald Henderson for a 12-yard score. It took UTC just six plays to drive 81 yards, Ailym Ford broke off a 48-yard rush to set up the Copeland touchdown. 

After the team’s exchanged punts, Levis would find Isaiah Epps for the senior’s first career touchdown reception, a 20-yard score.  

Through UK’s first two games of the season, they committed five turnovers, including two interceptions and two fumbles. The turnover battle would once again not go in favor of the Wildcats on Saturday.  

Levis threw his first of two interceptions in the second quarter, where CaMiron Smith jumped a route in Kentucky territory, setting up an eventual UTC field goal. 

Just two drives later, Levis would be strip-sacked on fourth down by Ty Boeck. Boeck, a junior linebacker, led the Mocs in tackles with 13 (nine solo) and a sack. 

At halftime, the Wildcats led just 14-10. In seven drives, UK punted or turned the ball over five times. Kentucky was unable to get the running game going all afternoon, finishing with 102 yards rushing. UTC’s Ford led all rushers with 128 yards. 

“At times we were moving it okay running the ball and then we weren’t handling some movement and they were getting some penetration and creating some negative yardage plays,” Stoops said. “Getting us behind the chains, and then all of a sudden you don’t convert a third and three, third and four, third down and you’re punting” 

Chattanooga’s first drive of the second half went 10 plays, ending with Aaron Sears’ second field goal of the game, connecting from 43 yards out. Two Kentucky penalties helped extend the UTC drive, UK finished with eight penalties, accumulating 60 yards. 

The Wildcats would turn the ball over for a third time in the third quarter, when Levis’ pass to Robinson was underthrown and intercepted by UTC’s Rashaun Freeman. The interception was the fourth of the season by Levis.  

Chattanooga’s Tyrell Price would break off a 33-yard rush, setting up Sears’ third field goal of the afternoon, giving the Mocs the lead in the fourth quarter. 

Kentucky would finally respond, as Levis scrambled for a 21-yard rush on a crucial third down, leading to a 31-yard touchdown pass to Izayah Cummings, regaining the lead for the Cats, 21-16. The catch was the first touchdown reception of the season for Cummings.  

With Chattanooga’s upset bid on the ropes, Kentucky safety Tyrell Aijan intercepted a Copeland pass, returning it 95 yards for a pick-six, giving the Wildcats their first cushion of the afternoon. The interception was just the second of the year for Kentucky.  

The Mocs would not go away, as they marched down the field in 14 plays, finishing with Copeland running into the endzone for a two-yard touchdown, bringing UTC back within one score with just over one minute remaining in the game.  

Chattanooga would attempt an onside kick, but Ali would be there to make the catch, helping UK escape embarrassment, winning 28-23. 

Stoops, while not happy with the performance, understands that his team got the job done when it mattered most: 

“You got to be good enough to win when you’re not at your best. You have to respect the game, and I talk about it daily, respecting the game, this game we love, is about preparation,” Stoops said. “The game is whatever happens, happens. You could live with it if you do your absolute best in preparation. I’m not happy with myself on that and I got to find a better way to motivate them.” 

It wasn’t easy, but Kentucky finds themselves at 3-0 to start the season. They will look to make it four wins in a row next Saturday, as they hit the road for the first time this season, travelling to Columbia, S.C. to take on the South Carolina Gamecocks.  

“We will go back to work and look forward to getting on the road and trying to get a SEC win here next week,” Stoops said. 

The game is set to kickoff at 7 p.m. E.T and will be available to watch on ESPN2.