Offense catches fire as Cats defeat Kent State 47-14



After dropping its season-opener to Louisville to begin the 2012 season, UK found itself playing before a mere 48,346 fans Saturday, the fewest to attend a home opener since 1973, and the fewest to attend any UK football game since 1996, before Commonwealth Stadium expanded its seating.

Clinging to a slim 17-14 lead midway through the third quarter against the Golden Flashes, UK looked to be in serious trouble for the second week in a row.

But then something changed. UK’s veteran offensive playmakers began making plays. Its young defense found a rhythm. Everyone in blue on both sides of the ball began to execute the way head coach Joker Phillips had promised they could. And within about 15 minutes of game time, the team had taken its three-point lead and stretched it out to 33 without looking back.

When Kent State running back Trayion Durham took a 26-yard carry to the house to pull Kent State to 17-14, the UK sideline looked anxious. But following the ensuing kickoff, the Cats’ offense, led by sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith, drove 80 yards in 11 plays, culminating with an 18-yard strike from Smith to senior receiver Gene McCaskill for a touchdown.

Just minutes later, following a forced fumble by senior cornerback Martavius Neloms that UK brought to the Kent State one yard line before turning it back over on downs, the defense cornered Kent State running back Dri Archer in the end zone for a safety.

On the free kick that followed, UK drove another 57 yards to the house, giving it 16 points in just under four minutes of action.

UK would score two more touchdowns in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter, capping the offensive explosion at 30 points in less than 15 minutes off the game clock, and blowing a once-close game wide open.

“As hard as they work, you need to see some successful things happen, and they did tonight,” Phillips said. “And what happens is everybody wants to be a part of it.

“I think hopefully this will be something that we can feed off.”

After a strong showing in his season debut against Louisville, Smith continued to impress with the best game of his young career at UK. The Cats’ quarterback was an impressive 30-39 passing for 354 yards and four touchdowns. Through two weeks, Smith is now a combined 65-89 for 634 yards and six touchdowns without committing a single turnover in that span.

“He’s comfortable; he sees the field,” Phillips said. “He’s very accurate.”

“I told the guys let’s get 50 (points),” Smith said. “I texted them let’s get 50. I thought we went out and got pretty close. I feel like we did a pretty good job.”

His deadliest weapon in defeating Kent State was senior wide receiver Aaron Boyd, who had the best game of his career as well in his second career start. Boyd hauled in 11 catches for 100 yards and a touchdown against the Golden Flashes, leading UK in all three categories.

“It’s a dream come true, really,” Boyd said. “I’m really grateful for this opportunity that I’ve gotten. I just really hope to keep making the best out of it.”

“I knew Aaron could do it,” Smith said. “He may not be the fastest, but he’s a good route runner and he’s got good hands. So, I kept going to him.”

Senior wide receiver La’Rod King added five catches for 53 yards and a touchdown, while McCaskill contributed three catches for 35 yards and his touchdown that started the rally.

UK was outgained in the run game for most of the evening, but finished the game with 185 yards on the ground to Kent State’s 182, and did so in seven fewer carries than the Golden Flashes. Junior Raymond Sanders, starting in place of the injured CoShik Williams, had his first career 100-yard rushing day at UK. Sanders ran 13 times for 126 yards and a touchdown, a 67 yard scamper in the second quarter that put UK in front at the time.

Defensively, it was still not quite the showing Phillips and defensive coordinator Rick Minter had hoped for. UK allowed 409 yards of offense to the Golden Flashes, including 131 on the ground in the first half. Both Durham and Archer finished the game with more than 80 yards rushing, routinely gashing UK’s interior defense for big gains.

UK settled down in the second half, holding Kent State scoreless, and was able to work some of its younger weapons onto the field. Linebackers Pancho Thomas and Khalid Henderson, cornerbacks Fred Tiller, Daron Blaylock and J.D. Harmon, and safety Kory Brown each recorded multiple tackles against the Golden Flashes. All of those names except Brown are true freshmen, while Brown is a junior college transfer in his second year of eligibility.

“We’ll continue to play them,” Phillips said. “They’re only going to get more and more comfortable with the amount of snaps that they get.”

But Phillips is still not satisfied with where his young defense is at.

“With who we have left on our schedule, we’ve got to improve a lot more,” Phillips said.

That young defense will take the field again next Saturday, Sept. 15, when UK hosts the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in Commonwealth Stadium.