LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky expected some adjustment with all those new faces.
There's room for growth, but the initial result was still decisive.
Ray Davis ran for two touchdowns while Devin Leary passed for one in their Wildcat debuts, and the defense made several big plays to rout Ball State 44-14 in the season opener for both teams on Saturday.
The Wildcats (1-0) trailed 7-3 entering the second quarter before rallying with 20 unanswered points, with 10 coming off two fumble recoveries. Jalen Geiger returned the first 69 yards to make it 17-7, and Jordan Lovett’s recovery led to the second of Alex Raynor’s three field goals from 40-plus yards for a 13-point lead.
Davis, a 1,000-yard rusher last season at Vanderbilt, broke a 30-yard TD run with 6 seconds remaining in the game along with a 2-yard score in the second to finish with 112 yards rushing on 14 carries. Leary completed 18 of 31 attempts for 241 yards to surpass 7,000 in his career in a highly watched performance after transferring from North Carolina State.
“I thought he had some really impressive runs, and not always the longer ones,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “We know he’s physical and tough and has good vision. But also he can also make people miss.”
Leary hit Dane Key (five catches, career-high 96 yards) with a 5-yard TD in the fourth to make it 30-7. Barion Brown’s 99-yard kickoff return made it 37-14 with 28 seconds remaining before Davis' big run capped it.
“Happy for the win, but left a lot of plays on the field,” said Leary, who sustained a season-ending shoulder injury after six games last fall. “I thought the defense balled well. We did some good things, but a lot we need to get better.”
Those explosive plays helped offset a sometimes-uneven offensive performance that featured dropped passes and penalties.
Kentucky outgained Ball State just 357-295 but was helped by a defense that posted eight tackles for loss, three sacks and stopped the Cardinals at the goal line in the fourth.
Something had to give after the Cardinals drove 73 yards in 13 plays for their first TD.
“Defensively, we were aggravated at times," Stoops added. “They're very well-coached. They’re good, were getting some plays on us and extending drives and give them credit.”
Transfer Layne Hatcher started at QB for Ball State and rushed for a 2-yard TD along with completing 6 of 8 passes for 36 yards. Kadin Semonza took over and finished 15 of 21 for 165 yards with a 5-yard TD pass to Ty Robinson, who had five receptions for 90 yards.
Alex Raynor made his debut at kicker for Kentucky memorable by converting all three field goals from at least 40 yards along with five extra points. That included consecutive makes from 46 yards in the second quarter that salvaged stalled drives and helped the Wildcats score on six of nine possessions overall.
Even with all that, the Georgia Southern transfer believes there's room for improvement.
“I felt that I didn't hit my best balls today,” Raynor said. “But I could tell that fans and players were happy.”
Linebacker Trevin Wallace's 12 tackles led seven Kentucky players with at least five stops each. Alex Afari Jr., Maxwell Hairston, and D'Erkyk Jackson made eight tackles apiece, and Afari and Hairston made key hits to force fumbles.
Ball State appeared poised to surprise Kentucky before collapsing in a mistake-prone second quarter. The Cardinals managed a TD late in the third but were stopped near the goal line and had a field goal blocked in the fourth.
“Can't lose the turnover battle,” coach Mike Neu said. “Two costly turnovers in the first half. Can't do that against a good football team.”
Kentucky's defense overcame a slow start to deliver big hits and takeaways in the second quarter to shift momentum before making a huge goal-line stand in the fourth. The highly touted debuts of Leary and Davis, not to mention Liam Coen's return as OC, didn't fill the stat sheet as expected but were generally solid. Most importantly, the offensive line allowed just one sack after giving up 47 last season. But starting left guard Kenneth Horsey left the game with an injury in the second quarter and did not return. Stoops had no immediate update on his status after the game.
Ball State visits two-time defending national champion Georgia on Saturday.
Kentucky hosts FCS neighbor Eastern Kentucky on Saturday.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll