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CATS Open SEC With Rout of Vandy

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

CATS 45-28 in Nashville

NASHVILLE – September 23, 2023

Maxwell Hairston had a pair of interception returns for touchdowns as Kentucky topped Vanderbilt 45-28 on Saturday at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.

Hairston had a 29-yard pick six in the first quarter, then did it again with a 54-yard interception return for a touchdown in the final stanza.

Kentucky (4-0, 1-0 SEC) got 78 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns from Vanderbilt transfer Ray Davis. Quarterback Devin Leary connected on 15 of 29 through the air for 205 yards and a touchdown, with two interceptions.

Barion Brown caught four passes for 105 yards to lead the Cats in receiving.

Octavious Oxendine led Kentucky with six tackles and Andru Phillips had five for Kentucky.

Vanderbilt (2-3, 0-1) got the opening possession and, after making one first down, the UK defense forced the Commodores to punt.

Kentucky took over on its own 17 yard line and the Cats quickly moved into Vandy territory, aided by a targeting penalty on the ‘Dores. Leary connected with both Dane Key and Brown for first downs before JuTahn McClain took a handoff up the middle and scampered 36 yards for the Kentucky touchdown. Alex Raynor added the PAT and the Cats grabbed a 7-0 lead with 9:51 left in the first quarter.

On Vanderbilt’s next drive, the ‘Dores were facing a second and 20 when quarterback AJ Swann was under pressure from Trevin Wallace and JJ Weaver. Swann tried to hit receiver London Humphreys but UK’s Hairston stepped in front and intercepted the pass, then returned it 29 yards for the touchdown. Raynor made the point after and Kentucky led 14-0 with 8:14 still to play in the first.

The Kentucky defense forced a three and out on the next Vanderbilt drive and the ‘Dores were forced to punt again. The Cats took over at their own 30 with 6:32 to play in the quarter. On the second play of the drive, Leary tried to connect with Brown on a deep ball but Vandy’s John Howse intercepted it and the Commodores took over at their own seven.

Again, Kentucky’s defense forced a three and out and a punt. Kentucky took over at its own 31 with 4:00 left in the first period.

On UK’s ensuing drive, Leary connected with Brown for 56 yards to get the Cats to the Vandy two yard line. Two plays later, it was Davis with the touchdown rush, expanding the Kentucky lead. Raynor made another extra point and UK led 21-0 with 1:56 left in the first quarter. That would be the score at the end of the quarter.

Early in the second quarter, Vanderbilt was forced to punt again and the Cats took over at their own 11 with 14:45 left in the half. The Cats went three and out and UK punted for the first time in the game. Vandy took over at its own 32 with 12:32 left in the half.

The ’Dores again went three and out and were forced to punt it away. UK took over at its own 16 with 11:18 to play in the half.

Kentucky would put together a long drive with the ensuing possession. The Cats used 13 plays to cover 74 yards, taking 6:25 off the clock. The drive would end with a 27-yard Raynor field goal, increasing the UK lead to 24-0 with 4:53 to play in the half.

Vanderbilt would have its best drive of the first half on the next possession. The ‘Dores would get to the UK 23 yard line before the drive stalled. Jacob Borcila would convert a 41-yard field goal to cut the UK lead to 24-3 with 2:51 left in the half.

Kentucky punted on its next possession and Vandy got the ball back at its own 43 yard line with 1:58 left in the half. The ‘Dores appeared to score on a touchdown pass but the play was called back due to a holding penalty. However, Vanderbilt would continue to drive and, with 20 seconds left in the half, Sedrick Alexander scored from seven yards out for the first Vandy touchdown of the game. Borcila added the PAT and the UK lead was cut to 24-10. That would be the halftime score.

In the third quarter, the teams exchanged punts on their first possessions. On Kentucky’s second possession of the half, Leary was hit and intercepted by Vandy’s Jeffrey Ugochukwu and the ‘Dores took over at the UK 16. But the Kentucky defense stood tall and forced Vandy into a 32-yard Borcila field goal, which was good, and the UK lead was 24-13 with 11:25 left in the third quarter.

Kentucky went three and out on its next possession and was forced to punt. Vandy took over in good field position at its own 48 with 9:49 left in the third quarter.

On Vandy’s next possession, Swann was intercepted by UK linebacker D’Eryk Jackson, who lateralled the ball to defense back Andru Phillips, who took it back to the Vandy 21 yard  line. A penalty moved the ball to the VU 12, where the Cats started their drive. Four plays later, Davis scored on a one-yard rush, his second touchdown of the day, extending the UK lead. Raynor added the extra point and Kentucky grabbed a 31-13 advantage with 6:44 still left in the third.

Vandy got a pair of first downs on its next drive before being forced to punt. Kentucky took over at its own 12 yard line with 2:15 left in the third. Kentucky would lead 31-13 through three quarters.

Early in the fourth quarter, Kentucky was deep in its own territory before Davis broke off a 38-yard run to get UK near midfield. Later in the drive, the Cats got on the board again when Leary connected with Key on a fade pattern in the left corner of the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown. Raynor added the PAT and Kentucky led 38-13 with 10:35 left in the game.

Vanderbilt would respond with a scoring drive of its own. The Commodores covered 66 yards in just seven plays, ending with a two-yard touchdown run by Patrick Smith. The ‘Dores went for two, and Swann hit Quincy Skinner to convert, making it 38-21 Kentucky with 8:00 to play.

On its next drive, Kentucky quickly got into Vandy territory when Leary connected with Brown on a 37-yard completion. But the drive stalled and UK punted it away with 5:09 to play.

Vanderbilt was moving the ball on its next possession before Hairston did it again. He intercepted Swann at the UK 46 and took it back 54 yards for his second pick six of the game. Raynor added the PAT and UK led 45-21 with 4:15 to play.

Vandy added a late touchdown to provide the final margin.

Kentucky returns to action next Saturday, hosting Florida at Kroger Field. Kickoff is set for noon ET and the game can be seen on either ESPN or the SEC Network.

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