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KENTUCKY WINS: Cats beat Commodores 45-28

The Wildcats earn their first road win of the season to open SEC play against Vanderbilt in Nashville.
Posted at 3:40 PM, Sep 23, 2023

League play has arrived in the Southeastern Conference, and you have to expect the other team to punch back. The Kentucky football team learned that lesson the hard way Saturday, but the Cats ultimately left Nashville with a win over Vanderbilt, 45-28.

Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary finished 15-29 for 205 passing yards, with Barion Brown as his top receiver (four catches, 105 yards). On the ground, it was the Ray Davis way. He finished with 17 carries for 78 yards and two touchdowns. JuTahn McClain added another score and finished with 64 yards on six carries.

UK's defense had an outstanding day, with three interceptions, two pick sixes, eight quarterback hurries, and two tackles for loss.

UK offensive coordinator Liam Coen said it best earlier in the week: the Cats were 3-0 coming into their first road test of the season, but no one on the roster nor the coaching staff felt satisfied with their play through three, non-conference games. Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt was the Cats' chance to put the pieces together, and they were poised to do exactly that in the game's opening quarter.

Action started with - who else? - Vanderbilt alumnus, Ray Davis. The Commodore-turned-Cat took the rock up the middle for a gain of two yards on Kentucky's opening play, followed by a Devin Leary to Dane Key completion for 14 more. Key was brought down after a hit to the head, and the subsequent targeting call took Vandy's fifth-year senior defensive back Jaylen Mahoney out for the remainder of the game.

The Kentucky offense rolled on. Seven plays for 81 yards culminated in senior running back JuTahn Mcclain breaking free from the pack for a 36-yard rushing touchdown to give Kentucky a lead the Cats would never relinquish.

Just four plays into Vanderbilt's next offensive possession, quarterback AJ Swann was facing pressure by Kentucky linebackers JJ Weaver and Trevin Wallace when he was picked off by Maxwell Hairston. The sophomore defensive back returned it 29 yards for the pick six to put the Cats up a quick 14-0.

It marked Hairston's second interception of the season and the first touchdown of his collegiate career. For now. More on that later.

But the Cats weren't immune from the turnover bug. Leary had a deep ball to Brown picked off by the Commodores on their own 7 yard line later that quarter. However, the 'Dores weren't able to capitalize, and UK's defense forced a three-and-out to get the ball back with nearly three minutes left in the quarter.

That was plenty of time for another touchdown. A 55-yard redemption completion from Leary to Brown put the Cats on the two yard line, before Davis ultimately punched it in for the score. Davis has been in these end zones plenty of times throughout his career, but this was the first time he found himself there wearing blue and white.

The Cats led 21-0 at the end of an explosive, fast-paced first quarter.

Things slowed down in the second, with Kentucky's only points of the period coming off a 13-play, 74-yard drive that ticked 6:25 off the clock.

The march stalled at Vandy's 10 yard line, where the Cats settled for a field goal to go up 24-0.

Then, the tide turned, as Vanderbilt would go on to score 13 consecutive points to cut into Kentucky's lead.

The Dores settled for a field goal of their own before the end of the half. The 41-yarder put three points on the board for Vanderbilt, but the Commodores weren't done yet. It took multiple trips to the end zone thanks to a holding penalty that erased Vandy's first touchdown catch, but the Commodores offense was relentless.

Freshman Sedrick Alexander snuck in a 7-yard rush on first down with time running out in the half. The extra point was good, and the Cats' lead shrunk to 14 points: 24-10, Kentucky.

Things couldn't have gone worse for the Cats to start the third quarter. Kentucky's first three offensive possessions ended in a punt, an interception (which eventually resulted in a Vanderbilt field goal), and another punt.

But just as things were looking bleak, Kentucky fans saw what they've seen so many times before: Brad White's defense coming up clutch. D'Eryk Jackson snatched an interception and, thanks to some quick thinking, prolonged the return with a lateral pass to his teammate, Andru Phillips. Kentucky's offense was put in the perfect position, and it capitalized with a touchdown.

Davis put the Cats back in the end zone with three straight, methodical carries: one for four yards, another for two, and finally, his one-yard touchdown rush to score Kentucky's first points since the second quarter field goal.

Kentucky opened the fourth quarter on a mission. The offense had locked back in, and it rattled off nine plays for 88 yards, the final 22 of which came courtesy of Dane Key.

The defensive Wildcats had one more huge play in them, and it came by way of Maxwell Hairston's second pick six of the day. He's the first Wildcat in school history to return two interceptions for touchdowns in the same game.

Vandy would go on to score one final time in the game's final minute. The final: Kentucky wins, 45-28.

The Wildcats will return home next Saturday for their next SEC test - the Florida Gators come to town for a noon kickoff inside Kroger Field.

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