Kentucky escapes SEC opener against Missouri 35-28


Kentucky quarterback Will Levis (7) celebrates with Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. (24) 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

Barkley Truax

A packed Kroger Feld saw Kentucky (2-0) rush for over 300 yards and defeat Missouri (1-1) in the 2021 SEC opener Saturday night.

For the first time in Kentucky football history, the team gained over 500 yards in consecutive games to start the season. After passing for over 400 yards in week one, offensive coordinator Liam Coen showed off his offense’s versatility with 341 rushing yards — which was on display from the get-go.

“(I’m) proud of our team and our coaches,” Head coach Mark Stoops said post-game. “They did so many good things. You saw that. It was very evident today.”

Kentucky was hot right out of the gates as Wan’Dale Robinson took the second play of the game 64 yards off a jet sweep that set the ‘Cats up with a first and goal. The run was good for the longest of Robinson’s career.

Two plays later, quarterback Will Levis found Chris Rodriguez Jr. out of the backfield for the five-yard score — the first receiving touchdown of Rodriguez Jr.’s career.

One Kentucky drive later, Levis found Josh Ali for 19 yards, which made Ali the 31st Kentucky player to record 1,000 career receiving yards. Two penalties — a face mask and a pass interference call in the end zone — set Kentucky up at the Missouri two yard-line. Rodriguez Jr. would score on the next play for his second of the evening.

Missouri’s Connor Bazelak found Tyler Badie on a check-down route for 24 yards on the next drive and the Tigers found themselves deep in Kentucky territory after a pass interference call on Tyrell Ajian. The Tigers scored their first touchdown of the night on a Bazelak strike to tight end Daniel Parker Jr. with 27 seconds remaining in the first quarter.

Just like last week, Levis’ first pass of the second quarter bounced off the hands of tight end Izayah Cummings and fell right into the arms of Missouri’s Haylor Carlies. The pass was behind his receiver and Coen said after the game that those situations are something him and Levis will work on to correct going forward.

On Kentucky’s next offensive drive, Levis found his favorite receiver in Robinson for 49 yards deep to the left side of the Tiger defense after finding Cummings for 15 on the play before. Two downs later, Levis would keep it himself from three-yards out for the touchdown.

“Those (plays) are difference makers,” Stoops said about Robinson’s catch. “You’ve heard me talk about it in here for a long time. You got to have guys that can make some big-time plays. And it’s nice to have him on our team.”

Kentucky was determined to score once again before halftime. The ‘Cats put together a 12-play, 12-rush drive together than ended with a Rodriguez Jr. fumble — his first since the 2019 season opener against Toledo — at the goal line that set the Tigers up with a chance to cut into the lead before halftime.

Bazelak would find Keke Chism from 17-yards out for a last-second first half score and Kentucky would head into the locker room with a one-score lead. Kentucky would win the yardage battle in the first half 314-203, including 218 rushing yards. 

The second half started off on the right foot, as Ole Miss transfer Jacquez Jones snagged UK’s first interception on the season deep in Tiger territory. Rodriguez Jr. ran 34 yards on two carries before finding his way into the end zone —extending the ‘Cats lead back to 14.

Missouri would make the most out of their next drive on 10 plays for 75 yards. Bazelak tossed his third touchdown of the night to Parker Jr. from six yards out, swinging momentum the way of the Tigers.

After forcing a Kentucky three-and-out on the next drive, Missouri marched down the field on 14 plays resulting in a 16-yard screen pass to Badie resulting in the game-tying touchdown. 

Kentucky broke the tie on the ensuing possession on another Rodriguez Jr. run — his forth score of the game — set up by a 28-yard reception from Justin Rigg, his first reception of the night.

Kentucky’s defense would come up huge for their hometown crowd with nine minutes remaining in regulation, stopping Badie and the Tiger offense on third and one for their first tackle for loss of the game courtesy of nose guard Marquan McCall. 

Missouri’s defense had Kentucky against the ropes, forcing third and long as Levis found Robinson for 33 yards to ignite the crowd at Kroger Field. Later in the drive, Rodriguez Jr. surpassed 200 yards rushing — the first Wildcat to do so since Lynn Bowden Jr. in the 2019 Belk Bowl.

The ‘Cats were forced to kick a field goal with just over two minutes remaining deep in Missouri territory. Blaze Alldredge was able to block the kick and the Tigers took over on their own 45 for one final chance to tie or take the lead. 

When his team needed him the most, J.J. Weaver sacked Bazelak to bring up fourth and long with just over 90 seconds remaining in regulation. Kentucky’s defense made the stop on fourth and sealed the deal their second victory of the season.

“I was really going to drop the play, but Missouri looked the opposite way so we had to change it really fast,” Weaver said. “Once they changed it, I was free. We have a game on the line. I needed that.”

Kentucky next match up is slated for Saturday, Sept. 18 for a date with Chattanooga at noon at Kroger Field.