Grand-opening win a landmark moment for UK

It felt like a celebration.

It began outside the stadium with a concert featuring women’s basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell and country duo Sundy Best.

It continued at Gate 1, where a raucous crowd welcomed the Wildcats at the Cat Walk.

Boom Williams wasn’t about to let it stop, running 75 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage after a $126 million renovation to Commonwealth Stadium.

“We talked about it all week,” Williams said. “Being able to have those fans in The New Commonwealth and being able to score on the first play was special. I don’t think we’ll ever forget that moment.”

UL Lafayette had designs on spoiling that grand-opening party.

Kentucky, on a strength of a big-play passing attack led by Patrick Towles, built a 21-0 lead just 17 seconds into the second quarter and later led 33-10 with 3:47 to go in the third quarter. The Ragin’ Cajuns, before a crowd of 62,933 could even process what was happening, charged back to tie the game with three touchdowns in less than nine minutes.

“We know they’re a good team and that they’re going to make plays,” Williams said. “We didn’t expect them to quit.”

Good thing the Cats didn’t quit either.

After briefly seeming rattled by UL Lafayette’s furious rally, the UK defense got a crucial 3-and-out keyed by a second-down tackle for loss by senior captain Melvin Lewis. On the ensuing drive, Charles Walker set up a 4th-and-short near midfield by picking up some tough yards after a catch over the middle. Towles – who completed 16-of-34 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns in an uneven performance – would gain just enough for the first down after fumbling the snap.

A few plays and a couple big UL Lafayette penalties later, UK had a 2nd and 8 deep in Ragin’ Cajun territory. First-year offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson called Mikel Horton’s number and the 6-foot-1, 226-pound sophomore delivered with a bruising 12-yard touchdown run.

“The run by Mikel at the end of the game there was impressive,” Mark Stoops said. “He had a great desire to get in the end zone.”

“I just ran,” Horton said, neglecting to mention the defender he knocked to the ground. “I followed my rules my coach gave me. It was a 420 power play. Our read is to go outside if it’s not inside. I just did what I was taught and it worked for me.”

And for UK.

Horton’s run gave the Cats a 40-33 season-opening and stadium-christening victory. Fans likely felt more like exhaling than celebrating upon leaving The New CWS for the first time after UK’s first sellout since 2010, but Stoops looked at the bigger picture.

The coach in him knows all about the 479 yards UL Lafayette rolled up, including 247 on the ground. The program builder in him knows it was a big day for the program nonetheless.

“We felt a big obligation to play a good football game and win this game,” Stoops said. “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.”

It’s that support that made Saturday such a big day for the Kentucky program.

The opening of the stadium marked a realization of Mitch Barnhart’s vision to give UK a facility on par with its Southeastern Conference brethren.

“That’s why we built the thing,” Barnhart said, “was to have fun and to create an atmosphere where our kids felt like they were in a really special place that resembled big-time college football atmospheres.”

Once the vision was cast, it was up to Senior Associate Athletics Director Russ Pear, UK’s construction partners and eventually a crew of volunteers made up by UK Athletics staff, student-athletes and coaches to make it reality.

“The people that have worked on this stadium, Mitch Barnhart, Russ Pear and just all the coaches and support staff and people that have volunteered to help and put in all this hard work and just have this environment,” Stoops said.

But without the fans, that environment never would have come to pass.

“To have a sellout — I’ve asked them to come, and they did,” Stoops said. “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.”

That’s where his feelings as a coach and program leader merge.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Stoops said. “We are going to work. We’re going to enjoy this tonight. We’re going back to work, and we’re going to become a good football team. So that’s a good starting point.”

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