Liam Coen’s debut as OC a success
LEXINGTON — September 4, 2021 – KEITH TAYLOR
The opening series of the new season wasn’t the way Kentucky had it scripted.The final chapter had a better ending.
Showcasing its new offense under first-year offensive coordinator Liam Coen, brought in during the off-season by the Los Angeles Rams to create balance within the team’s scheme, the first pass thrown by quarterback Will Levis tipped off the hands of receiver Josh Ali.
The visitors seized the miscue and scored the first touchdown of the year at Kroger Field, but from that point on, glimpses of Coen’s offense began to take shape. The Wildcats closed out the first half with 28 unanswered points and rolled to a 45-10 victory over the Warhawks Saturday in the season opener for both teams.
“(It was a) very good win,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “It’s always good to get off the start of the season with a victory. And, you know, it came with us making some mistakes, like I talked about all through the preseason that we were going to have some highs and some lows in practices and games and throughout the season. There’s going to be some ups and some downs.
“I thought our team responded. They were confident.”
Eager for a passing attack mixed in with Kentucky’s traditional running attackk, Kentucky didn’t disappoint in Levis’ debut as Kentucky’s signal caller. In the first half alone, Levis threw for 246 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. Levis finished with 367 yards passing and four touchdowns.
“He was hyped up and he throws the ball hard as you can see today,” Stoops said. “You could see that he’s all that he’s been advertised for with his arm strength. It was good to go through adversity.”
Levis admitted he was nervous “for sure” but settled into a rhythm after the first snap.
“The nerves kind just went away but I think the nerves were a good thing,” he said. “It was an indication of high expectations and it means that I care a lot about the team and the outcome and how it goes. Things went pretty well and I’m glad the game went how it did.”
Like Levis, Ali recovered quickly from the third play of the first drive and hauled in five passes for 136 yards and one touchdown. Ali hauled in four catches for 112 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter.
Former Kentucky Mr. Football Wan’ Dale Robinson got in on the fun as well and made five catches for 125 yards and had a pair of touchdowns. His first catch in a Kentucky uniform was a 33-yard touchdown strike from Levis, setting the tone for the remainder of the opening half.
It was a play Robinson envisioned unfolding while growing up in the Bluegrass State.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I’ve grown up coming to these games as a recruit and even as a young kid just envisioning myself scoring touchdowns here. For it to finally happen during my first game in the stadium it was great.”
The performances by Levis, Robinson and Ali provided a glimpse of what Coen’s offense will look like this season even though the Wildcats were heavily favored in the opener.
The running game was efficient and provided balance with an offense that relied heavily on the passing game. Chris Rodriguez finished with 125 yards rushing and one touchdown. Overall, the Wildcats rushed for 145 yards and compiled 564 yards of offense against the Warhawks.
“That has to be a staple,” Stoops said. “One doesn’t work without the other. You have to have the balance and the physicality. With Chris you saw some amazing individual efforts by him today … It was good to work on the pass game today and blend it with the run game because again, in this offense, you’ve got to have the balance you’re looking for.”
Combined with the first quarter interception, the Wildcats committed three turnovers, which will require the attention of the coaching staff going into Saturday’s Southeastern Conference opener against Missouri.
“There were way too many penalties — way too many mistakes we’ve got to get cleaned up,” Stoops said. “We have a big game next week, but it’s a good starting point.”
Gametracker: Missouri at Kentucky, 7:30 p.m., EST, Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network.