LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Ahead but inconsistent after 30 minutes of play, No. 20 Kentucky needed just 62 seconds to right things and earn a significant win for coach Mark Stoops.
Barion Brown returned the second-half kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, Keidron Smith’s fumble return less than a minute later set up another score and the Wildcats pulled away to beat Miami (Ohio) 37-13 on Saturday night in the opener for both teams.
Stoops’ 60th victory tied him with Paul “Bear” Bryant as the Wildcats’ winningest coach after 10 seasons with the program. Kentucky’s longest-tenured coach was happy to win but downplayed the milestone afterward, as he had all week.
“You can’t put my name in the same (sentence) as Bear Bryant’s,” Stoops said. “Let’s compete for six national championships, talk about that. But I am grateful to win that many games, to be here this long.”
Kentucky certainly needed those game-changing plays to make this win possible for Stoops after leading only 13-10 at halftime behind several missed opportunities deep in Miami territory.
The Wildcats quickly snatched momentum after the break as Brown dashed left, found a seam and turned the corner down the sideline for the big score just 13 seconds in. That TD included replay drama as the freshman appeared to let go of the football as he crossed the goal line. It was confirmed, putting Kentucky up by 10.
“I wasn’t nervous, but was down on myself for doing that,” Brown said of his return. “It felt great knowing I made a big play to help the offense and defense.”
Tyrell Ajian then came up big on Miami’s ensuing possession to force Jaylon Bester’s fumble that Smith returned 23 yards to the 8. Will Levis hit Chauncey Magwood with an 8-yard scoring pass two later for a 27-10 cushion. Matt Ruffalo added a 50-yard field goal and Levis tossed a 1-yard scoring pass to Dane Key and finished with 303 yards passing and three TDs and an interception.
“We did some good things at times,” Stoops added. “Had some drives and didn’t capitalize. A lot of things to improve on.”
Virginia Tech transfer Tayvion Robinson supplied Kentucky’s other chunk plays, catching six passes for a career-high 136 yards in his Wildcats debut. His first touch went for 45 yards to set up Levis’ 6-yard TD pass to Brenden Bates on the Wildcats’ first possession to tie it at 7.
Miami managed to tie the game at 10 and stifled Kentucky at times in the first half but only managed Graham Nicholson’s 27-yard field goal midway through the third quarter. Tyre Shelton scored the Redhawks’ lone TD with a 22-yard run on their opening drive. Brett Gabbert completed 20 of 28 passes for 166 yards before leaving the game late with what coach Chuck Martin said was a non-throwing arm injury.
Kentucky outgained the Mid-American Conference school 353-290.
“We came in ready to play, ready to win,” Martin said. “But those first couple of minutes (of the second half), you can’t afford to do that against an SEC team.”
The Wildcats played without leading rusher Chris Rodriguez, who Stoops said was unavailable along with linebacker Jordan Wright without being specific. The coach added that Rodriguez and other players could face multi-game suspensions next week for undisclosed reasons.
Newcomers factored big for Kentucky, which used at least a dozen freshmen along with several transfers. Brown and Keidron Smith provided the turning points, but Tayvion Robinson set the scene with two 40-yard receptions and 103 yards after the catch.
“I came here to be a playmaker,” Robinson said. “Felt good to let people see what I could do (on the first play). Barion said he was going to get one. I told him to hang on to the ball a bit longer.”
Miami: Brett Gabbert’s short out passes initially caught Kentucky off guard to set up the first TD, and for a while the Redhawks kept pace physically and statistically. Everything changed on two plays within 62 seconds in the third quarter, digging a hole they couldn’t climb out of. Outgaining Kentucky 111-50 on the ground and sacking Levis four times were bright spots.
Kentucky: The Wildcats left points on the field in the first half with Levis’ high pass off Izayah Cummings’ fingertips and the QB’s goal-line interception before special teams and defense restored focus and swagger. Robinson lived up to billing as the big-play threat, but the Wildcats have work to do if they hope to win in the Swamp next week.
Miami hosts Robert Morris on Saturday.
Kentucky visits Florida on Saturday in its SEC opener, seeking a second consecutive victory over the Gators.
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