For the most part, Kentucky had been able to overcome its problems on offense during a 4-1 start.
But in its biggest game of the season, against South Carolina, offensive woes came back to bite the Cats in the tail in a 24-17 loss at Commonwealth Stadium.
The Wildcats not only forced four turnovers, but also were the beneficiaries of four missed field goals from South Carolina kicker Ryan Succop.
When it came time for the offense to make plays, however, the Wildcats fizzled. Kentucky generated just 218 yards of offense and was a horrific 1-for-16 on third downs.
Never miss a local story.
The Cats' final possession of the game summed up the afternoon.
After Succop's fourth missed field goal gave UK a chance for a game-tying drive, Mike Hartline delivered a pass to an open T.C. Drake that would have been a big gain and given Kentucky a first down in South Carolina territory, but Drake let the ball slip out of his hands. After an illegal substitution penalty gave the Cats a first-and-10 at their 33, Hartline threw three straight incompletions before being picked off by Chris Culliver on fourth down with 1:13 remaining.
UK led 17-14 at halftime but had only 55 yards and four first downs in the final two quarters.
The South Carolina players said they never felt threatened by the Kentucky offense in the second half.
"The whole game it was really us making mistakes, not them making plays," said Culliver, a sophomore safety. "When we corrected them, we shut them down. We knew they wasn't going to score on us as long as we kept our intensity up. We dominated them today. Dominated."
"We had a pretty intense meeting at halftime," defensive end Jordin Lindsey said. "We came together in the second half and did what we were supposed to. We wanted to keep them out of the end zone every chance we could get, and I didn't think they could put it in there on us unless something big happened."
The UK coaching staff tried a few different things to get the offense going. Tailback Derrick Locke got his first start of the year and was the focal point of the offense. Randall Cobb returned from a high ankle sprain and saw snaps at quarterback and receiver. The Cats also used two-tailback sets with Locke and Alfonso Smith, Locke splitting out wide. Nothing worked.
Hartline was 23-for-43 passing for 152 yards and missed the mark on several of his attempts. And when he did put the ball on the money, the receivers failed more often than not to bring the ball in.
"Some of those passes could have been thrown better, and occasionally you have to go up and make the catch," UK Coach Rich Brooks said. "We didn't make any of the tough catches."
Hartline and offensive coordinator Joker Phillips both echoed Brooks.
"I needed to make a lot better passes, and the receivers need to make better catches," Hartline said. "If everybody does all that they can do on every play, then that's when our offense will start clicking."
"This wasn't one of his better games," Phillips said of Hartline. "He didn't have as good of command of the football as he's been having. But the guys around him have to make plays. Even if the ball is floating, you've to get your hands on it and make a play."
The UK offense wasn't helped out by the loss of its top receiver, Dicky Lyons Jr., who left the game with a knee injury after making an 8-yard catch to the South Carolina 2-yard line early in the second quarter. Brooks said the initial diagnosis for Lyons is a torn knee ligament, but the timetable for a return won't be known until an MRI is done on Monday.
Cobb and Locke had eight catches apiece, and Lyons had two grabs before he went out. Other than that, the only two UK wide receivers to catch passes were true freshmen Eric Adeyemi (two catches, 7 yards) and Aaron Boyd (one catch, 14 yards).
"We're searching for guys to start making plays," Phillips said. "They've just got to start making them. We're so close. When you get your hands on the ball, you've got to make a play. You've got to break tackles. South Carolina's guys were doing that, and that was the difference in the game."
UK's ineffectiveness on offense kept the defense on the field for long stretches in the second half and eventually wore the players down. Kentucky went three-and-out on three straight possessions starting late in the third quarter, and backup quarterback Stephen Garcia led the Gamecocks to a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives to seize control of the game.
"I hate relying on the defense to bail us out all the time," Hart line said. "That's what they've been doing all year. No wonder they get tired."
South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson didn't take too much credit for Kentucky's struggles, saying, "We just got out of some situations. I didn't think we put very good pressure on the quarterback. I thought there were several times that we had coverage situations where Kentucky had a chance to make the play and just didn't."
Things won't get any easier for the UK offense without Lyons. Now Phillips must try to piece together a receiver rotation with mainly freshmen.
"I know they'll come around," Phillips said of his receiving corps. "We're probably relying on too many young guys, and we've had to project. I project our guys will be fine. Hopefully it will be next week."
While Cobb might be UK's best receiver without Lyons in the fold, Phillips hinted that Cobb could see extended action at quarterback.
"Randall's a playmaker," Phillips said. "We need to get the ball in his hands. We probably have to use him (at quarterback) a little more so we can have him touch the ball on every play."