Kentucky’s first bowl game in six years started a bit like its season: slow and sloppy.
And by the time the Cats could catch their collective breaths, Georgia Tech had a sizable advantage that it rode to the end of the TaxSlayer Bowl, topping UK 33-18 at EverBank Field.
“We were a little too rattled, a little too flustered,” said quarterback Stephen Johnson, whose opening fumble put Kentucky in a quick 7-0 hole from which it never fully escaped.
“We were really excited to come out here and play this game at the beginning. That excitement might have gone a little bit too far maybe. I’m glad about how we finished, but too little, too late.”
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The Cats, who finished the season 7-6, did find some life late, but it was not enough.
“They played better,” Coach Mark Stoops said of Georgia Tech, which won its fourth straight game. “They executed in critical moments. They deserved to win the game. So I congratulate them.
“As I just told the team, we’re extremely disappointed with the way we finished in losing this game. But I’m very proud of them.”
Kentucky looked the part of nervous rookie early on, first with Johnson gifting the fumble for a P.J. Davis 38-yard return for a score.
“Can’t think of a better way to start the game,” Tech Coach Paul Johnson said afterward. “That was a great start.”
The start got better for the Yellow Jackets (9-4) when Harrison Butker’s first of four field goals on the day put them up 10-0.
An Austin MacGinnis 37-yard field goal got Kentucky on the board with 11:36 to go in the first half, but the Cats had their share of empty possessions, too.
Behind the legs of Jojo Kemp, UK drove the ball to the 5-yard line, but on fourth-and-1, Kemp was downed for a loss of 1, and UK walked away without a point.
“We tried to go hurry up,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said of the fourth-down play gone wrong. “We put that wildcat deal in there and we tried to get them where they weren’t able to sub. We went fast, still no excuse.”
Georgia Tech’s big stop on defense was matched only by a bigger call on offense when Paul Johnson went for it on fourth-and-inches from Tech’s own 15-yard line.
“That’s just the trust he had in us,” said Tech quarterback Justin Thomas, who capped what turned out to be a 94-yard drive with a 21-yard scoring run. “We made him right.”
Those fourth-down calls were game changers, Stoops said. UK missed on some short-yardage situations in which it had been successful most of the season.
“Those are critical plays,” he said. “I don’t regret going for it on fourth-and-one driving because I know we needed some points. We could have always done some different things, got a bigger set, taken our time, done that.”
With less than 30 seconds to go in the first half, Tech had another chance at the end zone when Grant McKinniss’s punt was blocked.
What transpired eventually led to a 52-yard, barely there field goal for Butker as time expired. It had Stoops on the field for an extended period of time talking multiple times to the officiating crew.
Afterward, he said he was seeking clarification.
Butker hit another 44-yard field goal late in the third quarter to extend the lead to 23-3.
Kentucky’s offense found its footing far too late, scoring its first touchdown early in the fourth quarter on a 20-yard pass from Johnson to Dorian Baker, who went horizontal to make the catch.
The Jackets, thanks to another field goal by Butker —this time from 26 yards — extended it to 26-10 with 6:13 to go. In the win, Butker became Georgia Tech’s all-time leading scorer.
UK’s Johnson, who completed 19 of 34 passes for 175 yards, got the Cats within eight points late with his 21-yard scoring run. He connected with C.J. Conrad on the two-point conversion to make it 26-18 late.
Johnson’s run tied the school record for most rushing touchdowns in a single season with 30. Other than that, Kentucky’s vaunted ground game mostly was ineffective against Georgia Tech.
Kentucky appeared to attempt an onside kick gone terribly wrong, giving Georgia Tech the ball at its own 42-yard line with four minutes to play, but Stoops said it was a “mishit” by the Cats’ backup kicker.
MacGinnis, the starter, had a nagging injury from the Louisville game that kept him from kicking off.
Dedrick Mills, who led the Jackets with 31 carries for 169 yards, ended Kentucky’s hopes with his 3-yard scoring run that came on the heels of a 42-yard pass from Thomas to Ricky Jeune on third down.
“We were fortunate to make some plays when we had to have them,” Paul Johnson said. “We hit a few more big plays than they did. That was probably the difference in the game.”
The Cats’ two 1,000-yard rushers, Boom Williams and Benny Snell, combined for just 69 total yards on 18 carries in part because UK was forced to play catch-up.
Kentucky was outgained 371-324, including 266-149 on the ground. UK’s longest run of the game came on a 25-yarder by senior Jojo Kemp.
Thomas completed six of 14 pass attempts for 105 yards and ran it nine times for 42 yards in the victory.
Despite the struggles, despite the loss, Stoops said he was happy to see the Cats make a surge at the end of the season, especially after starting the season 0-2.
“I’m proud of this team, their efforts, everything that we’ve asked them to do,” he said. “We’ll continue to build, become a stronger program. I’m excited about the future. I can’t let one game get myself or this team down or take anything away from the good things that they did.”