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Offense, passing game show more proof of improvement

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Aaron Boyd set career highs with 11 catches and 100 receiving yards in UK's 47-14 win over Kent State. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Boyd set career highs with 11 catches and 100 receiving yards in UK's 47-14 win over Kent State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's offense - more specifically, its passing attack - showed signs of life in a season-opening loss to Louisville. Using a no-huddle attack led by a new full-time starter at quarterback, UK moved the ball as consistently as it had at any point during a forgettable offensive 2011 season. Smith threw for 280 yards and a pair of touchdowns, spreading the ball to 11 different receivers.

Following a 47-point, 539-yard explosion against Kent State in UK's home opener, the revamped offense has gone from having a faint pulse to an unmistakable heartbeat. Maxwell Smith completed 30-of-39 passes for 354 yards and four touchdowns, racking up more yards through the air than any UK signal-caller since 2007.

"I thought he played really well tonight," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "He's seeing things well. Usually when a quarterback sees well and is able to play fast, he's prepared. He's obviously working hard in practice. He's taking what I'm trying to teach him and taking it to heart."

Smith led the Cats to a 47-14 victory in front of 48,346 fans in Commonwealth Stadium, moving them to 1-1 on the season. After the Golden Flashes grabbed a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, UK stormed back to score 47 of the game's final 54 points. Before Smith was lifted with the outcome well in hand, Kentucky scored points on seven of nine drives - including six touchdowns - following three fruitless possessions to start the game.

"It speaks to the system," Smith said. "We're throwing it a lot and it's fun to play in this system and I think we're doing a pretty job. We just have to keep improving."

Through two games, Smith has 65 completions and well over 600 yards. Kentucky had 171 completions as a team in 12 games during 2011. He completed passes to 11 receivers against Louisville and 10 vs. Kent State. Just 17 different receivers had receptions all of last season.

For head coach Joker Phillips, Saturday night was proof positive that the determination he and his fellow coaches made after watching Smith practice just a few times in December 2011 to transition to the new offense was spot on.

"We said that this guy would be great in this type of offense," Phillips said. "We really started to try to transition to it then, and we were right. He's comfortable; he sees the field. He's very accurate."

The primary beneficiary of Smith's accuracy on this night was wide receiver Aaron Boyd. The senior made his second start of his Kentucky career after impressing last Sunday with three catches and solid downfield blocking, delivering the kind of performance UK fans envisioned for the formerly highly touted recruit.

"It was a lot of fun out there making plays again," Boyd said.

Not only did Boyd set career highs with his 11 catches, 100 yards and a touchdown, he exceeded his production in all three categories from his first 19 games of his time as a Wildcat.

"Really proud of Aaron Boyd," Phillips said. "Aaron Boyd continues to get himself better, continues to understand how you are supposed to go about your business and being a big-time wide receiver."

Boyd is member of a receiving corps with a diverse set of weapons and won't match his output against Kent State in every game this season, but he took advantage of his opportunities in a big way. The Golden Flashes were playing zone most of the night, the kind of defense Boyd is best suited to attack.

"He's had a great fall," Sanders said. "He came out this spring and was rejuvenated. He's obviously worked hard at it. I think Coach Washington has been really good for him and this was his kind of game."

At least for a while, it didn't look like it would be DeMarcus Sweat's kind of game. As promised this week by Phillips, plenty of youngsters were making plays on defense, but the dynamic freshman wide receiver was without a catch into the fourth quarter. He had one kick return he took out of the end zone and was met with a big hit well inside the 20-yard line. He also had a drop on a screen pass early.

"I remember I threw one earlier in the game and it hit him in the chest and he dropped it," Smith said. "I went up to him and I was like, 'Stop looking so sad. You're going to do something. Keep your head up.' "

It turned out to be a poorly thrown pass that proved him right. On Smith's final pass of the night, he threw a quick screen to Sweat on the right side. The ball sailed high, but Sweat leaped and, in seemingly one motion, made a defender miss and was off to the races for a 56-yard touchdown that put Smith over the 300-yard mark. It was the kind of first career reception that might just set the tone for a memorable career.

"I've told you guys that the kid, he's talented," Smith said. "He just put one move on a guy and you were able to see his speed. The kid's very talented and the kid's going to be a very good receiver here."

Smith's pass got the ball in Sweat's hands and it was the backup quarterback's block that sprung him.

"Did you guys see who made the block?" Phillips said. "Morgan Newton."

Morgan Newton, playing an evolving H-back/Wildcat quarterback role, lined up wide and laid the block that helped turn a short gain into a very long one.

Sanders and Phillips are putting their heads together to see how to best utilize the senior who lost out on the starting role to Smith. Seeing a player like Newton who can both pass and run at different spots across the field is a terrifying thought for opposing defenses, and could make UK's improved offense that much more lively.

"We've only got so many guys on the team that are 6(-foot-)3, 240 pounds and run like he does and has his athletic ability," Sanders said. "I told him last spring if he wasn't our starting quarterback, he wasn't going to stand over on the sideline with me. We're trying to find the way he can help us. Morgan's been phenomenal. He's all about Kentucky and Kentucky winning."

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