LEXINGTON (AP) — Kentucky scored almost every time it had the ball, and its few failures against Tennessee-Martin weren’t for lack of effort.
Most satisfying for the Wildcats were contributions from all phases, particularly a running game that seems poised to establish its own identity.
Braylon Heard stated the backfield’s case with first-half touchdown runs of 73 and 43 yards, spurring Kentucky to a season-opening, 59-14 rout of the Skyhawks on Saturday.
“It was a good start obviously,” Wildcats coach Mark Stoops said. “I’m very pleased with the team’s effort. There’s a lot to get corrected, but overall we did a lot of good things.”
Quarterback Patrick Towles added a TD passing and running in his first career start for Kentucky, which outgained the Skyhawks 656-398. The Wildcats’ sophomore threw for 377 yards, but his tailbacks set the tone by flying through huge holes and scoring virtually untouched.
Especially Heard, the junior transfer whose yardage came on those two carries. He twisted his ankle on the second TD and didn’t return but helped propel Kentucky to a 35-0 halftime lead that reached 52-0 before UTM scored.
Mikel Horton also scored twice and Jojo Kemp added a TD run for Kentucky. Khalid Henderson returned a third-quarter fumble 89 yards for a score.
UT Martin’s consolation was spoiling Kentucky’s bid for its first shutout since September 2009 as Najee Ray and Caylo Weathers scored fourth-quarter TDs on a 1-yard run and 15-yard reception, respectively. By then the Wildcats had overwhelmed the Skyhawks on both sides of the ball.
“There were not a lot of positives,” UTM coach Jason Simpson said. “I am disappointed in that and I am responsible for that.”
The Wildcats’ yardage total was their fourth-highest in a game. Kentucky also created five turnovers, including interceptions by Fred Tiller and junior college transfer A.J. Stamps — a one-handed one, yet — that brought Kentucky within one pickoff of matching its entire 2013 total.
Even better, those takeaways led to 21 points.
“I told them we’re going to go out and change it this year and create some turnovers,” Stamps said. “We did today and hopefully can do it the rest of the season.”
While Kentucky was expected to win big over the FCS-level Skyhawks, the Wildcats were expected to dominate with their passing game.
The Wildcats’ improved grasp of the Air Raid offense was supposed to be displayed through the arm and mind of Towles, who won a three-man competition for the starting job. He definitely did his part in completing 20 of 29 attempts without an interception, but the backfield’s 234 yards added some balance while showing the scheme’s big-play potential for its runners.
Heard demonstrated that on both TDs, blazing through big holes on consecutive drives to put Kentucky up 21-0 and keeping the air raid sirens blaring for punctuation.
“I’m just trying to take advantage of each carry,” Heard said.
Towles wasn’t fazed about his tailbacks stealing the spotlight because of how well he managed the offense. The Kentucky native was admittedly nervous but didn’t show it as he made good reads, avoided sacks by getting rid of the ball quickly and most importantly, hit short and long throws.
“There were a couple of bad decisions,” Towles said, “but as you saw, I did what coach has been wanting me to and that was coming out on the next series and making two good decisions that canceled out my bad ones.”
In between completions that moved the ball downfield, Towles hit long passes of 44, 56 and 79 yards that led to 17 points. His 56-yarder to Ryan Timmons set up his 29-yard TD pass to freshman Blake Bone, who found a hole in the flat and turned it into a 28-0 lead.
Horton’s 18-yard TD run came two plays after Towles’ 36-yarder to Bone on the left sideline.
It was that easy for the Wildcats, who also had a lot to feel good about defensively in keeping UT-Martin in check before it scored late against the reserves.
The game’s final 4 minutes were muted after Kentucky cheerleader Brooke Gibbs was injured in a fall. She gave a thumbs-up while being carted off the field for transport to nearby UK Chandler Hospital, where she was treated and released several hours later.