Unfortunately, the shine is off this Kentucky football season. It was right there in the Cats’ grasp, the possibility of a 10-win regular season, a New Year’s Six bowl, a chapter in the history books. That’s no longer the case. Not after Saturday.
After a 6-0 start, the Wildcats have lost three straight. And if that Oct. 16 loss at No. 1 Georgia was understandable and that loss at Mississippi State on Oct. 30 deflating, then Saturday’s action-packed 45-42 home loss to border-rival Tennessee was just, well, tough.
To be sure, the UK-UT rivalry is not what it once was, but losing to your southern neighbor and SEC East rival still leaves a scar, especially on a night when you gain 612 yards, possess the football for over 46 minutes, run 99 plays — yes, 99 plays! — have the ball at game’s end with a chance to win a sizzling shootout and end up with your third straight loss.
“Absolutely incredible football game,” UK head coach Mark Stoops said afterward. “Very difficult loss.”
After all, Stoops is a defensive guy and the Cats’ defense just could not stop Tennessee’s offense. Bottom. Line. Josh Heupel’s Volunteers scored 38 points while having the ball for all of 13:52. They didn’t need a second more than that. Tennessee scored a 75-yard touchdown on the game’s first play from scrimmage. It scored a 72-yard touchdown on its fourth snap. Heupel’s ultra-tempo, lightning-fast attack had the Cats on the run all night long.
“The big plays are inexcusable,” UK defensive coordinator Brad White said. “We have to get that fixed.”
To be fair, duct tape is about all that is holding this Kentucky defense together right now. Nose guard Marquan McCall was missing again last night. Starting defensive tackle Octavius Oxendine is out for the season. Starting outside linebacker Jordan Wright missed last night’s game, as well. His teammates are playing with various ailments. There’s a reason the betting line went from Kentucky being a five-point favorite to the Cats being a one-point underdog by kickoff. At home.
“No excuses,” Stoops said.
After all, over UK’s past two outings, opposing quarterbacks have completed 51 of 59 passes. Last Saturday in Starkville, Mississippi State’s Will Rogers completed 36 of 39 passes for 344 yards and a touchdown. Saturday night, Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker completed 15 of 20 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns. Out of 59 balls in the air, only eight touched the ground.
Another key pass stat from both those games. Neither opposing QB was intercepted. Last year, Kentucky tied for third in the nation with 16 interceptions. This year, Kentucky has intercepted just three passes. Only four of the 130 FBS teams have fewer picks.
So where are we now? A national story three weeks ago, the 6-3 Cats are out of the spotlight. Those October wins over Florida and LSU don’t hold the same cache now as they did then. Neither the Gators nor the Tigers own a winning record. Florida suffered an embarrassing 40-17 loss at South Carolina on Saturday. LSU fired head coach Ed Orgeron two weeks ago. Both teams are 4-5.
“Look around our league and we’re competing,” Stoops said. “We’re fighting. Like a lot of people. It’s tough.”
The thing Kentucky can’t do now is just play out its string. Three games remain in the regular campaign — Saturday at Vanderbilt, Nov. 20 at home to New Mexico State, then Nov. 27 at Louisville. The last thing the Cats want to do is turn a disappointing final half of the season into a disheartening one. A 9-3 final record might not be 11-1, but it’s worth fighting for.