LEXINGTON, Ky. – Boy, was it ever teed up for Kentucky. Mark Stoops has used that expression before, when it appeared his Wildcats were on the verge of a breakthrough and the conditions seemed right to get it done. So many times, they hadn’t.
But it was teed up again Saturday night, nice and tall, and this time felt different. There was something in the air at Commonwealth Stadium, where they showed the end of Florida’s loss to Arkansas on the big screens before Kentucky hosted Georgia. The Gators’ defeat meant a Wildcats win would give Stoops’ team a half-game lead in the SEC East – unprecedented for this program with just one conference game to go.
“I was aware of it,” safety Marcus McWilson said, “and I’m sure other guys were. We saw the opportunity at hand.”
That delicious possibility, on the heels of five wins in the previous six games, brought a skeptical fan base almost all the way back. The pregame atmosphere was Kentucky’s best in more than a year and the season-high crowd of 62,000-plus made a joyful noise all night as the Wildcats and Bulldogs battled.
“It was teed up,” Stoops said. “No doubt about it.”
But then Georgia, not Kentucky, took the swing. A 25-yard field goal as time expired gave the visitors a 27-24 victory that was harder for Stoops to swallow than if he’d tried to eat the actual game ball.
His Wildcats led by a point at halftime, by eight in the third quarter, by five still in the fourth. Georgia, a .500 team when it arrived, looked for most of the night more than willing to lay down for this newly energized Kentucky.
“Tonight was a hard loss,” Stoops said. “I appreciated that (fan) support, because it was a great environment, and you wanted to deliver. And again, a game comes down to a few plays.”
A few old, ugly habits. The self-inflicted stuff these Wildcats had lately, largely put behind them – or found a way to conquer as they surged toward bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010. (Here is where we must note that Kentucky hosts a winless FCS team, Austin Peay, in two weeks, so that significant breakthrough is still almost certainly coming.)
It’s just that something so much bigger was teed up right in front of Stoops’ team Saturday night, and the Cats whiffed. Ever so narrowly.
They’d stripped Georgia’s star running back Nick Chubb on the second play of the third quarter and turned that into a made field goal to extend their lead – only a holding penalty wiped it out and pushed Kentucky outside of Stoops’ comfort zone for another try, so he punted.
Later, with the Wildcats up eight, receiver Garrett Johnson snared a pass and tried to get more than his 20 yards – but he fumbled it away at UK’s 38 instead. The Bulldogs turned that into a field goal.
On the Cats’ next offensive play, quarterback Stephen Johnson threw a perfect deep ball to Jeff Badet, hitting him in stride for what should’ve been a 77-yard touchdown – but it slipped through the receiver’s arms, bounced off his chest and directly to Georgia’s Deandre Baker for an interception.
That’s a lot of same-old-Kentucky stuff, not the stuff that got the Wildcats here, to the cusp of bowl eligibility and allowing themselves to dream quite a bit bigger than that. But while the Wildcats were not quite ready for prime time, there was a sign of progress in this bitter loss: Despite all that went wrong, they had a chance to win and move into first place in the East.
Against a Georgia team that beat Kentucky by an average of 32.7 points the previous three years.
“I have a lot of respect for that football team,” Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said. “I know a lot of people talk about them being Kentucky, but that’s a good football team. They’re an extremely physical football team. They know how to run the ball and they run it really well and they play really hard on defense. So make no qualms about it: That’s a good team.”
Smart said all that after watching sophomore linebacker Jordan Jones, who delivered 10 tackles, 2½ for loss, a forced fumble and pass breakup, make key stops. After seeing true freshman running back Benny Snell, who rumbled for 114 yards on 21 carries, put the sputtering Wildcats offense on his shoulders.
Snell ran it 10 times, including nine in a row, on Kentucky’s final drive, all the way to Georgia’s 7-yard line. But a tying field goal is all the Cats could manage from there, and they left too much time for the Bulldogs to drive on an exhausted defense.
“This was just a big opportunity for us to capitalize on the situation given to us. For us to fall short today was just – it kind of grounded us a little bit and it will just allow us to come back and get ready to work,” said junior wide receiver Dorian Baker, who made a critical third-down catch on UK’s tying drive. “The pieces are there. We just have to learn how to finish.”
When it’s teed up like that, crush it. That’s the next step in the growth of a program.