Football season has arrived in the bluegrass and it has come in with a bang. From the opening of the much-hyped New Commonwealth Stadium last week to ending the SEC road losing streak on Saturday, Cat fans have had much to celebrate. However, there still seems to be a portion of the fan base that isn’t quite “All In”, unable to shake Kentucky’s past failures. I get that, truly I do. But my goal is to show you proof that the glass that is Kentucky Football is far more than just half full.
First, let’s talk about the New CWS. Having been in the stadium on July 25, for the Women’s Clinic, I was very concerned about the amount of work that remained to complete the renovations. But I have to say how very pleasantly surprised I was when I arrived at CWS for the season opener. While there were a couple of things visibly unfinished (portions of a few sidewalks, for example), the stadium was certainly game day ready. Everything felt fresh and with the addition of the new media section and the luxury suites, Commonwealth Stadium was shining like never before.
A tip of the hat should also be given to UK Athletics for making this reopening a grand one. The pregame concerts (especially Coach Matthew Mitchell and the Go Big Blue Band) just added to an already electric atmosphere. From skydivers delivering the game ball to the field to what I felt was one of the best performances ever of the national anthem, it was clear we were finally ushering in a brand new era for UK Football.
Oh, and by the way, Kentucky did win the opening game versus ULL, though to read some of the comments on social media, one might have surmised the Cats had been defeated. Yes, the Cats let a big lead slip away making it necessary to keep the game’s outcome in doubt until the final minutes. Yes, the defense had several lapses and our youth was exposed. Yes, Patrick Towles had some significant issues with passing accuracy. What seemed to be overlooked, though was the Cats did indeed buckle down and make the big plays when they needed to do so. Also underestimated was the quality of our opponent. While not a power 5 conference team, the Ragin’ Cajuns are a team on the rise, having had back to back 9-win seasons and 4 consecutive New Orléans Bowl victories. Instead of acknowledging those facts, there were fans crying out that it was “the same old Kentucky.”
So the Cats headed down to South Carolina to face Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks. After week one’s uneven performance, fans were not at all confident that UK would finally break their long SEC road game losing streak. But that is exactly what happened. After what may have been the most complete and best half of football I can ever remember a Kentucky team playing in my lifetime, the BBN was nearing levels of euphoria. Of course, we all know the 2nd half wasn’t as easy for the Cats, but again when it came down to crunch time, these Wildcats delivered.
While our offense struggled in the second half, our defense remained strong. Several drives seemed to be destined to result in touchdowns for USC, but the Cats held the Gamecocks to 3 consecutive field goals. Then when it appeared South Carolina was finally going to tie the game with a 2-point conversion after their only touchdown in the 2nd half, UK’s defense stepped up once again, forcing a fumble and returned it for the safety. Those 2 points were huge and all but sealed the victory.
Surely by now we can see this is not the “same old Kentucky.” The “old Kentucky” would have buckled under the pressure and let at least one of these games slip away. Instead, they kept fighting and kept making big plays when necessary. We now have the size and speed that one would expect to see on a strong SEC team. Mitch Barnhart has also shown he is committed to providing the facilities that will attract elite recruits. The stadium renovations and the new practice facility currently being constructed are more than just window dressing. These are absolute necessities to keep building this program into a top-tier SEC team.
I certainly expect us to hit a few bumps in the road over the course of the season. I have no doubt our youth will be exposed and possibly exploited in a couple of games. But I also see a lot of good things in our future. We have an outstanding group of wide receivers and incredible depth at running back. We have a defense that has shown tremendous improvement in just one week, and I only see them getting better as the season progresses. Let’s not forget it was a true freshman (Chris Westry) that made the game-saving interception. Add to that the fumbled 2-point conversion by USC that was returned 99 yards by Denzil Ware, a player who we learned today was sick and needed IV fluids throughout the game. And we have to remember that expected starter Jason Hatcher still hasn’t played yet (he has now completed his suspension and is now listed at #2 on the depth chart for this week’s game).
Let’s all remember that building a winning football program is a monumental task. Coach Stoops still has a long road ahead before UK is contending for SEC championships, but he is clearly on the right track. This is not a program that is being rebuilt, but rather one that is being built from the ground up. We’ve ended one streak and I expect another, even longer losing streak (versus Florida) to come to an end this weekend. Yes, the glass at Kentucky is far more than half full now, and I am more than ready to drink the Big Blue Kool-aid that’s in it.
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