UK passing game comes up big in season opener


Kentucky quarterback Will Levis (7) looks for an open receiver during UK’s home opener against Louisiana Monroe on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 45-10. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Barkley Truax

Kentucky’s offense showed up as advertised.

The Wildcats finished their first game with 564 yards of offense, something Kentucky fans have been waiting to see since Mark Stoops took over as head coach after the 2012 season.

A tale of two drives for Kentucky to start their 2021 season showed everything that could go right, and wrong, for the offense this season.

Penn State transfer turned starting Kentucky quarterback Will Levis had the first pass of his Wildcat career picked off, leading to an early score for the Warhawks’ offense. Levis seemed determined to prove that interception was a fluke — and prove us he did.

“I just kind of chuckled about it,” Levis said about his mood after the interception. “Of course this is how it starts out.”

Levis completed four of his next six passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns. The first went to Wan’Dale Robinson for 33 yards that capped an 87-yard drive; the next time the offense hit the field, Levis found Josh Ali on the first play for a 58-yard touchdown. 

It took Ali five seasons to record his first 100-yard receiving game and all it took was three catches Saturday for him to record that personal milestone. Robinson also had five catches for over 100 yards and two scores before halftime.

This was Kentucky’s first wide receiver duo to have surpassed the century mark since Nov. 5, 2011 by  Matt Roark (116) and La’Rod King (102). Robinson and Ali finished with 125 and 136 yards (261 combined), respectively.

In 2020 under Terry Wilson, Kentucky averaged 121 passing yards per game, and were two yards short of the average  after the first quarter. Just like that — offensive coordinator Liam Coen and his new offense were in business.

“Coach Coen put up some great calls [against] the defense we were seeing,” Levis said post-game. “We were able to find some openings in the defense that we took advantage of and to connect on the deep balls with accurate throws and deep catches was huge.”

Midway through the second, Levis hooked up with Robinson twice on a four-play drive, once for 62 yards and another for 15 and a touchdown. Kentucky hasn’t had a deep threat like Robinson since Lynn Bowden Jr. In 2018, before he stepped in as the Wildcats’ quarterback the next year. 

By halftime, Kentucky had amassed 341 yards of total offense, including 246 passing yards from Levis — more than Kentucky had by any quarterback in any game last season. The most in 2020 was by Wilson, who threw for 239 yards in the season opener against Auburn.

After a 57-yard completion to Isaiah Epps in the third, Levis became the first Kentucky quarterback to throw for over 300 yards since Stephen Johnson threw for 338 when the Wildcats upset Lamar Jackson and a then-No. 11 Louisville team in 2016.

All last season, Kentucky had four passing plays resulting in 30 yards or more — that total was matched Saturday against ULM. Three of the four massive gains were hauled in by three different receivers in Robinson, Ali and Epps.

“It’s good to see that separation,” Levis said about the deep balls. “I think the [receivers] definitely played game-speed today and had that burst that was expected out of them.”

Levis was taken out early in the fourth and replaced with sophomore Beau Allen, but not before Levis could throw for 367 yards and four touchdowns on 18-26 passing. The rest of the offensive starters  were also subbed out around the same time, putting a stall to the explosion that was Kentucky’s season-opening offense. 

It should be taken into account that ULM is statistically one of the easier teams to get the better of and the real test will be next week when Missouri comes to town for the SEC opener.