Kentucky ready for season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles and coach Mark Stoops have found it hard to contain their anticipation about new-look Commonwealth Stadium.
Stoops has occasionally stopped by to check progress of round-the-clock construction. Towles has found sanctuary there amid the clanging and cleanup.
“I’m a big fan of peaceful situations,” Towles said. “On Saturday there’s not going to be a lot of peace, so I just wanted to get in there, relax and take it all in.”
When the action begins on the field, the junior quarterback aims to guide Kentucky past Louisiana-Lafayette in the coming-out party for the “new” CWS following a $120 million makeover. A near-sellout crowd is expected for the first of eight home games as the Wildcats look improve on last year’s 5-7 finish, and clinch the program’s first bowl appearance since 2010.
Doing so means putting aside the pomp and circumstance to beat a Ragin’ Cajuns squad coming off their fourth straight 9-4 finish and New Orleans Bowl victory. Junior running back Elijah McGuire returns for Louisiana after rushing for 1,264 yards and 14 touchdowns last season.
For the Wildcats, establishing a similar postseason presence starts with handling their business at home.
“We’re excited, but the most important thing we can do is go out and play well,” Stoops said of keeping players from getting caught up in the moment.
“It’s important to a lot of people, and we recognize that. But we truly have to play one play at a time, and we’ve got to have discipline and focus about us to do that.”
No doubt, the Wildcats are eager to make a strong first impression as they aim to make CWS feel like home instead of their home field.
Modern amenities abound for players in the 61,000-seat stadium, including a club lounge/training table and new recruiting room with a patio overlooking the field. The recruiting room sits atop a newly-created tunnel from which the Wildcats will enter a new synthetic turf field with checkerboard patterns in the end zones.
Having watched the stadium’s nearly two-year transformation, Kentucky safety A.J. Stamps and teammates can’t wait to kick off its new era and added, “the adrenaline’s going to be flowing for sure.”
Some other things to watch when Kentucky opens the season against Louisiana-Lafayette:
DAWSON’S DEBUT: Shannon Dawson has replaced Neal Brown as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator and wants to continue the pass-heavy “Air Raid” scheme with a quicker, efficient pace. West Virginia ranked 12th in offense last season under Dawson, who believes the Wildcats can be just as prolific with better execution and balance from the running game.
TWO CAJUN QBS: The departure of three-year starter Terrance Broadway left a void that either Brooks Haack or Jalen Nixon, or both, must fill. Both juniors played in six games last season but Haack had the numbers, completing 20 of 23 passes for 179 yards and two TDs.
MATURING TOWLES: A year ago, Towles was understandably nervous approaching his first career start after nearly dropping off the depth chart. He went on to combine for more than 3,000 total yards and 20 touchdowns, resulting in a more polished and confident QB who beat out Drew Barker for the starting job this year. “He’s definitely a leader, just making sure he’s doing everything right and making sure everybody’s on top of their game,” receiver Jeff Badet said.
LOUISIANA’S DEFENSE: The Ragin’ Cajuns allowed just 12 fewer yards per game than they gained last season, but return five starters including senior linebacker Dominique Tovell. Melvin Smith and Charlie Harbison take over as defensive coordinators.
CATS’ KICKERS: Sophomore Austin MacGinnis earned first team all-Southeastern Conference honors after setting school records with 104 points and 21 field goals including a 54-yarder. Landon Foster enters his fourth season as the punter and has been reliable, averaging nearly 43 yards per attempt last season.