LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky needed resolve to initially catch Toledo — twice — before imposing its will to eventually seize control.
Terry Wilson threw two touchdown passes, A.J. Rose and Kavosiey Smoke each ran for TDs and Kentucky overcame Toledo to pull away 38-24 on Saturday in the season opener for both schools.
Getting there required more time and work than Kentucky wanted.
“First-game jitterbugs,” said receiver Lynn Bowden, who had six catches for 77 yards.
The Wildcats rallied twice against the Rockets to enter the break tied at 14 before taking control in the second half. A third-quarter fumble recovery led to Chance Poore’s 46-yard, go-ahead field goal before Bryce Oliver’s leaping grab of Wilson’s 32-yard TD pass provided a 10-point lead.
Smoke’s 40-yard TD run down the left side midway through the fourth made it 31-17. Kentucky then converted DeAndre Square’s interception into Wilson’s 2-yard TD pass to Josh Ali to clinch the first meeting between the schools.
“It’s always a good thing when you can walk in and win by 14 points,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “We did some good things but there’s certainly a lot we can improve on.”
For sure, some falloff was expected after the Wildcats finished 10-3 with a Citrus Bowl win to cap their best season since 1977. They began without running back Benny Snell and edge rusher Josh Allen — respective career leaders in rushing and sacks — and with a revamped secondary and backfield.
But Kentucky also had key returning starters such as Wilson, who made big plays when needed. The junior found eight receivers to complete 19 of 26 passes for 246 yards and hit three targets with passes of at least 30 yards.
Being sacked just once also spokes volumes about his protection.
“That’s something we have stressed over fall camp,” left tackle Landon Young said. “We have a really good defensive front. Those guys are rushing us every day. That has been an emphasis in giving Terry time to throw it really well.”
The Wildcats also had some good luck as tight end Justin Rigg recovered Chris Rodriguez’s goal-line fumble in the end zone for Kentucky’s first TD. A.J. Rose (16 carries, 64 yards) added an 11-yard score, and Smoke had 78 yards rushing on seven carries as the Wildcats outgained Toledo 422-347.
The Mid-American Conference Rockets took leads on first-half TD runs of 5 yards by former Kentucky running back Bryant Koback and 21 by quarterback Mitchell Guadagni.
Guadagni left the game in third after his helmet was knocked off after being tackled by Chris Oats, who was ejected for targeting. Third-string QB Carter Bradley — who played because backup Eli Peters didn’t travel for what Rockets coach Jason Candle said were personal issues — ran for a 7-yard TD with 1:02 remaining.
“I am proud of the fight we showed,” Candle said. “We were down (but) responded well and I thought the kids did well with that. … We didn’t come down here to be someone’s charity game.”
Stoops said officials have a “tough” call to make when making the targeting decision on plays such as Oats’ contact that knocked off Guadagni’s helmet.
“It’s very difficult to know when the quarterback is going down to slide and if he’s going to slide,” the coach said. “As long as they’re going to wrap up and our head is up and trying to play clean, then it’s just going to happen sometimes. It’s in our game.
“It’s for the well-being and the safety of our student-athletes, so it is what it is. I support it.”
Toledo: The Rockets never trailed in the first half thanks to the running of Guadagni and Koback. They just couldn’t finish Kentucky, which rallied twice to tie the game before a costly fumble led to a field goal. Eleven penalties for 80 yards also hurt, including three pass interference flags that led to 17 points. Guadagni and Koback each rushed for 73 yards as the Rockets edged Kentucky 181-176 on the ground.
Kentucky: The Wildcats answered two wakeup calls in the first half with impressive drives and defensive stops before going ahead for good after halftime. Their win featured uneven play on both sides of the ball. Kentucky was even on the turnovers but came up with takeaways at the right time and registered four sacks. Square, a sophomore linebacker, had 11 tackles including a sack.
Toledo has a week off before hosting FCS Murray State on Sept. 14.
Kentucky hosts Eastern Michigan on Sept. 7. The Wildcats won the inaugural meeting 24-20 in 2017.