LEXINGTON, Ky. — A second-half collapse in Week 1 gave way to a beatdown in The Swamp, and now Kentucky returns home in Week 3 to what is as close to a sure win as the Wildcats could imagine.
UK and New Mexico State will meet for the first time at 4 p.m. Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. The Aggies, coached by former UK quarterback Doug Martin, are coming off a come-from-behind win over rival New Mexico after losing to UTEP in Week 1.
Here are five keys for Kentucky on Saturday.
End it early
UK has been bludgeoned in its last six quarters of play, but the Wildcats should roll against a weak New Mexico State side.
The Aggies are 14-59 going back to 2010 and a handful of those victories are against FCS sides. It’s a gimme game for Kentucky when it needs it most. Progress can’t be gauged after a convincing win over the side from Las Cruces, N.M., but a lopsided result could resurrect the confidence UK showed in fall camp.
Find an offensive identity
The Wildcats have a capable collection of running backs, inexperience on the offensive line and weapons at wideout, but it’s still unclear what strength the offense can fall back on. Sophomore QB Drew Barker dazzled for a half against Southern Miss but has been shaky at best since. The same can be said for his teammates.
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran blamed himself after last Saturday’s 45-7 loss in The Swamp, but more notably, he questioned the game plan moving forward.
“I’ve got to re-examine and find out: ‘Do I have too much in? Is the package, what we’re trying to do, too much?'” Gran wondered aloud after the game.
Gran is in his first year leading the offense after coming from Cincinnati in the offseason. Saturday will give him, Barker and the offense a chance to get past the growing pains.
Who does what on defense?
It’s more of a question for the coaches than the players. Coach Mark Stoops was asked Monday on his radio show if there’s a point where he’d consider taking a more active role in defensive game planning. “Yes” was his answer and he wasn’t willing to go further.
Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot’s side has given up 89 points through two games and the Wildcats defense is among the worst in the nation. Eliot has been in the role all four years since he and Stoops arrived in Lexington, so it’ll be interesting to see how the situation unfolds.
Hold up on third downs
The defense has been ineffective in a number of statistical categories, but none is more glaring than its inability to get off the field on third downs.
UK is No. 127 out of the 128 FBS teams in opponent third down conversion percentage. Florida was successful 14 out of 20 times on third downs and nothing could deplete an already downtrodden defense more. Stoops said his team has to start winning one-on-ones defensively. Keep an eye on this Saturday.
See who can play
Depth has been the most-talked about issue for the Wildcats through the first two weeks, especially on defense. This point coincides with the first key to the game: End it early to experiment with inexperienced players.
Stoops needs to know who he’s working with, and games like this might give him a better idea. Southern Miss was a close game and the starters were hardly given a breather. A few more players made their debut at Florida but not in the best learning environment.
If the Wildcats cruise early, the coaching staff can mix and match to see who can do what under the lights.