NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Kentucky's promised Air Raid offense sputtered in coach Mark Stoops' debut, and now the Wildcats may have a bit of a quarterback controversy.
The Wildcats never led Saturday night in losing 35-26 to Western Kentucky. Jalen Whitlow started at quarterback as Kentucky fell behind 35-17 before Maxwell Smith came in early in the fourth quarter. Smith threw for 125 yards, including a 34-yard touchdown to Demarco Robinson, to give Kentucky a chance at a late comeback.
Stoops did not announce a starter prior to the game but had said both quarterbacks were likely to play. The coach said Whitlow did some good things while Smith moved the ball. Now Stoops said he wants to watch the film.
"We've got to go back and take a good, hard look at that again," Stoops said of his quarterback situation.
The Wildcats host Miami (Ohio) in their home opener on Sept. 7.
The Hilltoppers sent Bobby Petrino home a winner in his debut as head coach and also beat their in-state rival for a second straight year, though they didn't need overtime like they did last year in this win over the Southeastern Conference program. They outgained Kentucky 487-419 in total offense and held the ball for 35 minutes. The Wildcats got 164 yards in the fourth quarter all with Smith.
The loss ruined Stoops' debut. Coordinator Neal Brown's Air Raid offense struggled against a Western Kentucky defense returning seven starters from a bowl team that went 7-6 last season in the Sun Belt Conference.
"We looked out of place," Stoops said.
Whitlow's biggest play came with his legs as he broke loose on a 50-yard run on the first play of a drive with 5:28 left in the second quarter. That set up a 5-yard TD by Jonathan George, and Whitlow also ran 19 yards for a TD early in the second. But he was 10 of 15 for 78 yards passing.
When Petrino has had more than a week to prepare for an opponent, he is nearly unbeatable with a record now 28-8 in such games. The former Louisville coach also now is 5-1 against Kentucky with his lone loss coming while at Arkansas. He had some of his family in the stands.
"It's great, and it puts a smile on my face there's no question about that," Petrino said.
The Hilltoppers decked the end zones with red banners to help make themselves at home in LP Field, home to the NFL's Tennessee Titans. They also had plenty of fans also on hand too with a crowd of 47,623.
Western Kentucky took control from the start and scored on three of the first four possessions. Western Kentucky went 75 yards or longer on each of the TD drives with Simpson scoring on a pair of 3-yard runs, the second putting the Hilltoppers up 21-10 in the second quarter.
This isn't what the Wildcats expected.
"Plain and simple, they were better than us today," Smith said.
Kentucky did turn two Antonio Andrews' fumbles into 10 points to trail only 21-17 at halftime. The Wildcats had to settle for a 22-yard field goal by Joe Mansour off the first fumble recovered by Avery Williamson. Jalen Whitlow ran 50 yards the play after Andrews' second fumble, and George scored his TD after the second.
But the Wildcats stalled in the third quarter with only 65 yards.
Stoops put in Smith after Western Kentucky went up 35-17. Smith drove the Wildcats to a 30-yard field goal by Mansour and he connected with Demarco Robinson on a 34-yard TD pass with 1:37 left. But Western Kentucky safety Jonathan Dowling stripped Ryan Timmons of the ball with 6:33 left, and the Wildcats' last gasp ended when an onside kick attempt went out of bounds.
Robinson said he's not really sure who will throw to him in the next game.
"That's a sticky situation," Robinson said. "I'm not sure but whomever they put up under center, we've got confidence in them."