John Clay: Cats show their heart, but Auburn breaks it

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 10, 2010 

OK, OK, so consolation should be hard to find for a team that is now 0-3 in the SEC.

But there's some there for Kentucky, if you look hard enough, after the heartbreaking 37-34 loss to eighth-ranked Auburn on Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium.

"This team has heart," said head coach Joker Phillips.

Yes, the Cats lost. It's their third straight loss, their third straight SEC loss. In the end, with the decision on the line, they couldn't stop Auburn from driving from its own 7-yard line to the UK 5-yard line, before taking a knee to set up the automatic Wes Byrum 24-yard field goal on the game's final play.

And there are no such things as moral victories.

But there is competitiveness and fight, and never quitting, and heart. You can give the Cats that.

They trailed 31-14 in the second quarter, and it was a lopsided 31-14. With the 6-foot-6, 250-pound beast of a quarterback, Cameron Newton, the Tigers were an offensive juggernaut. Newton ran. Newton threw. Newton ran through tacklers. He threw over defenders.

The first half alone, the junior-college transfer rushed for 132 yards on 13 carries and threw for 129 yards, hitting eight of 11 passes. He scored four touchdowns. He was everything he was advertised to be.

As someone put it, Auburn's no-huddle offense got the best of Kentucky's no-tackle defense.

But just when the Big Blue Nation was ready to run defensive coordinator Steve Brown right out of town, the Kentucky defense came alive in the second half. It began defending. And blitzing a little. And tackling a lot. Three-and-outs followed. Auburn punts commenced. Kentucky got the ball back by ways other than just fielding an Auburn kickoff.

And here's the thing, the Wildcats offense kept on competing. It did the same last week at Mississippi, even with the three turnovers. The total yards count was well over 400, even though Phillips' team dropped that game to the Rebels. Turnovers and undisciplined play cost the Cats that day. Saturday night, there were not those mistakes.

And can we please stop with the Mike Hartline bashing now? Please. The senior quarterback completed 23 of 28 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown on the night. He kept the sticks moving. He made very few bad throws. He made plenty of good, accurate throws.

And Randall Cobb made great plays. Cobb said he was going to play angry, and play with passion he did.

Even with all of Newton's terrific runs — the Auburn quarterback finished with a career-high 198 yards on the ground, and 210 through the air — Cobb made the most spectacular play of the night.

Rolling right out of the Wildcat formation, Cobb avoided a sack, circled back to the left, made the left corner and raced 26 yards to the Auburn 1-yard line in the third quarter. He scored from that yard out the very next play, tying the game at 31 with 4:03 left.

Given the way Kentucky appeared left for dead in the second quarter, not many would have thought that.

The fourth quarter was nip-and-tuck after that. The end zone was much harder to find. Auburn kicked a field goal for a 34-31 lead. Kentucky moved right back down the field, had a first down at the Tigers' 16-yard line, but was stymied there. Craig McIntosh's 35-yard field goal tied the game at 34.

When Auburn mishandled a reverse attempt on the second-half kickoff, the Tigers had to start the drive from their own 7-yard line. But when the UK defense needed one last stop, it couldn't get that stop.

Auburn kept the ball for 19 plays.

The 19th play was Byrum's winning field goal.

"My heart aches for those guys," said Phillips after the game about his team.

Maybe, in the end, better to have a heart broken, than no heart at all.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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