LEXINGTON, Ky. – Anticipation. Electricity. And then a Boom.
Williams, that is.
But, the Wildcats would need a storybook ending to fend off a late UL Lafayette charge.
Sophomore running back Mikel Horton scampered 12 yards for a touchdown with 57 seconds remaining to lift UK to a 40-33 win over visiting UL Lafayette in front of a sellout crowd of 62,933 fans.
“We talked about that all week, going out there and scoring on the first play – a big emphasis on it actually,” Williams said. “I just want to give credit to my O-line and the outside guys, the receivers and the fullbacks that were in on that play. They did their job so it was my job to get us going. It was good to score and get in the end zone early and get us going.”
Not even Walt Disney himself could have crafted a more perfect script for the Kentucky football program in its newly-minted stadium than Williams’ opening dash. The touchdown served as the ultimate explosive beginning for third-year head coach Mark Stoops and the Wildcats, before Horton’s touchdown run capped a dramatic finish.
“It was really a great night,” Stoops said. “I could not be more proud of this football team the way they hung in there and played a hard-fought game. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Just the overall day, that is the big thing. Let’s not kid ourselves, we have been building for this moment for a couple of years with the stadium and the anticipation and the fans and just an improved football team. We are an improved football team. I know it didn’t always show out there tonight, but that’s why you play. It’s an opener. It’s a start. There’s going to be so many opportunities for us to learn from this. But just very proud of everybody involved.”
After jumping out to a 23-point advantage, Kentucky yielded 23 consecutive points to the Ragin’ Cajuns in less than nine minutes of play to tie the score at 33.
UL Lafayette forced the home team into a three-and-out to take over possession with a chance at seizing the lead with 6:58 remaining. UK senior lineman Melvin Lewis stuffed Louisiana’s Elijah McGuire for a three-yard loss to help force the Cajuns into a punt, setting the stage for Horton and the offense.
Needing a score, UK generated a nine-play, 58-yard game-winning drive. Kentucky’s offense benefited from two 15-yard penalties during the winning push, but Horton was able to take advantage of the miscues to lift Kentucky to the win.
“Losing didn’t cross my mind,” Horton said. “It was about executing. We worked so hard through the summer and spring and now we have the opportunity to show what we have worked for. That was the frustrating part for us.”
Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles threw for 257 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. UK generated 435 yards of total offense.
“It counts,” Towles said. “It’s one. We got the best record in the country right now. We’re 1-0 and we’re moving on. We’ll learn from it. We had a really good start early. We didn’t stay consistent, but we made plays when we had to and that’s really encouraging.”
Williams secured his third-career 100-yard rushing game on 10 carries for 135 yards, which included the opening-drive score. Horton carried six times for 28 yards and the final touchdown.
Sophomore Garrett Johnson led the receiving corps with five catches for 85 yards and a touchdown. Five receivers snared at least one ball for 30 or more receiving yards, and three different receivers caught touchdowns from Towles.
Senior linebacker Josh Forrest paced the defensive effort with 15 tackles, including a sack, three pass breakups and the game-clinching interception. Junior corner J.D. Harmon was a part of two turnovers for the Cats. He forced a fumble deep in Kentucky’s territory to end a lengthy Ragin’ Cajun drive in the opening quarter before picking off a pass in the second quarter. Lewis added nine tackles to the defensive effort.
“Coach told us before the game that things are going to go bad and not go as planned so you have to keep your composure and do the things you’ve been coached to do,” Harmon said. “Those are the things that show up and bring you through the tough games like that.”
UL Lafayette’s Brooks Haack threw for 194 yards and scored both from the air and on the ground. Torrey Pierce had 110 yards rushing and two touchdowns, while McGuire rushed 27 times for 86 yards.
Williams’ rush marked a career-long play for the sophomore and the first of three total UK scores of 35 or more yards. It also signified the first touchdown on the opening possession for Kentucky since 2007’s opener vs. Eastern Kentucky.
The Wildcats put together consecutive scoring drives of 99 and 95 yards. Towles found Johnson for a 35-yard pitch-and-catch down the left sideline for the 14-0 lead on a seven-play drive. Towles and Co. then needed just five plays to go 95 yards for a score on their fourth possession of the game. The drive was capped with a 37-yard receiving touchdown by sophomore Jeff Badet. During the drive, Towles connected with three different receivers for passes of 28 yards or more.
Sophomore placekicker Austin MacGinnis snapped the UK school record with his 10th consecutive successful field goal dating back to last season late in the second quarter. MacGinnis set the new standard with a 44-yard make from the right hash to extend Kentucky’s lead to 24-7.
UL Lafayette’s only score of the opening half came with 8:33 remaining in the second quarter. Quarterback Brooks Haack rushed for a nine-yard score after leading a 13-play, 75-yard drive.
UK was forced to punt on its opening drive of the second half, but senior long snapper Kelly Mason recovered a muffed punt to give possession right back to the Cats. MacGinnis connected on his second field goal of the game from 24 yards out to lift UK’s lead to 27-7 with 9:54 to play in the third quarter.
Williams and junior JoJo Kemp had rushes of 38 and 32 yards, respectively, to highlight a five-play, 66-yard scoring drive to increase UK’s lead to 33-10. Towles connected with his third different receiver for a score as sophomore Blake Bone hauled in the five-yard touchdown.
The Cajuns connected on a 31-yard field goal from Stevie Artigue on its second possession of the second half, and then the visitors cut the Wildcats’ advantage to 33-17 with a 56-yard rushing score from Torrey Pierce with 1:26 remaining in the third quarter.
UL Lafayette would not go away and pulled to within eight at 33-25. The Cajuns produced an eight-play, 71-yard drive and converted a two-point conversion to keep things interesting. On UK’s next offensive possession, Louisiana picked off Towles and took over at its own 33. The visitors made the Wildcats pay with an eight-play, 63-yard scoring drive to knot the score at 33 apiece.
“Special thanks to the fans,” Stoops said. “To have a sellout — I’ve asked them to come, and they did. And the Cat Walk walking in here and the atmosphere this afternoon, late this afternoon and this evening when we walked in here, the atmosphere on that Cat Walk was amazing. Believe me, that is a building block for our program. That kind of passion, that kind of energy from our fan base will do nothing but help us, help build this program, help attract top quality athletes and inspire the players that we have here right now.
“So I thank them from the bottom of my heart. We felt a big obligation to play a good football game and win this game. So I’m not going to let the fact that it got a little sloppy in the second half take away from that. It’s a victory. We’re always going to be grateful for victories. It was a good start. But I’m just proud of everybody and just appreciative of everybody’s support.”