The Kentucky defense underwent a metamorphosis Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium. After collaborating with Auburn quarterback Cam Newton on a Heisman Trophy promo in the first half, the defense tightened up in the second, helping UK erase a 14-point deficit and tie the game at 34 with 7:31 remaining.
But the Wildcats couldn't get that one last stop.
Newton led the Tigers on a 19-play, 86-yard drive that ate up the final 7:25, and Wes Byrum kicked a 24-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Tigers to a 37-34 win in front of a dejected crowd of 70,776 at Commonwealth Stadium.
"My heart aches for these guys," UK Coach Joker Phillips said. "They played their hearts out. We asked them to come in and prepare like champions on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and we got that. We prepared like a big-time football team's supposed to prepare. Our guys were into it, played hard, played inspired, played with emotions. We made plays when we needed to have them made. We just came up a little short. My heart aches for those guys because I asked those guys to play and leave everything on the field, play with heart, play with emotions, and they did it.
"It's hard," said UK quarterback Mike Hartline, who was brilliant in defeat going 23-for-28 for 220 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. "You can't really say much about it. We just ran out of time. We came up one drive short. It's tough."
UK battled back to tie it at 31 and then tied it up again at 34 on a 35-yard field goal by Craig McIntosh with 7:31 remaining. Auburn took over on its 7 with 7:25 on the clock, and because of the way the Wildcats had stuffed Newton in the second half after allowing him 261 first-half yards, Phillips was confident.
"There was no doubt in my mind that we would get them stopped, and our offense is moving the ball on them," Phillips said. "There was no doubt in my mind that we're going to win the game."
But it wasn't meant to be. Newton, who finished with 210 passing yards and 198 on the ground, completed a key third-and-6 pass for 9 yards to Darvin Adams from his own 11, and the Tigers plowed down the field, setting up Byrum's fifth career game-winning field goal.
"We methodically got first downs, we methodically milked the clock, we methodically did the things you have to do to win games," Auburn Coach Gene Chizik said.
Kentucky's comeback was aided by Randall Cobb, who was as brilliant in the second half as Newton was in the first. Cobb became the first Wildcat to throw a touchdown pass, run for a touchdown and catch a TD reception in a game since Shane Boyd pulled it off against Ohio in 2003. He also tied Craig Yeast for first place on the career touchdown list with 32.
"Not much needs to be said," Phillips said of Cobb. "The guy's the best football player I've ever been around. He makes plays. Every time the ball is in his hands, something can happen. He's hard to tackle and makes people miss. He's not blessed with great speed or a real strong guy. He just makes plays."
But the only thing Kentucky has to show for it is a third consecutive loss as they now must host South Carolina, fresh off a 35-21 win over No. 1 Alabama, next Saturday.
The UK offense got off to the start it needed. Cobb took the opening kickoff to the Auburn 49-yard line. It took Kentucky just seven plays to hit paydirt. Cobb got three carries out of the Wildcat formation on the first series and took it from 2 yards out to give UK a 7-0 lead at the 11:51 mark.
Newton showed what the hype was all about on Auburn's first series. After a pass-interference call kept the drive alive, Newton broke through a Ronnie Sneed arm tackle to pick up 16 yards on third-and-2 and then scampered untouched for a 17-yard TD to tie the score at 7.
"That's a big guy who's got some wheels," Sneed said. "He can move."
Newton struck again on the next drive after UK was penalized on third down for having too many men on the field, finishing off the eight-play, 80-yard drive with an 8-yard run up the middle to make it 14-7 Auburn late in the opening period.
UK's only first down on its next two possessions came via a personal foul.
Then Newton ran for 12 and 22 yards. Next he scrambled right to avoid pressure and hurled a 33-yarder to Kodi Burns with Anthony Mosley draped around his leg as he was going toward the sideline. Newton's third rushing touchdown, this one from 8 yards, put the Tigers ahead by two scores at 10:01 of the second.
Auburn linebacker Daren Bates then stripped Derrick Locke, and the Tigers recovered at their 48. The Cats blew a chance to get the ball right back when they allowed a Michael Dyer fumble to roll out of bounds, but they did force Auburn to settle for a 38-yard Byrum field goal at 7:12.
The Cats trimmed it to 24-14 thanks to a pair of Auburn personal fouls. Cobb, operating out of the Wildcat, rolled left and threw across the field to a wide-open Jordan Aumiller for a 6-yard score at 4:52.
Any momentum was short-lived, however, as Newton quickly went back to work. He completed a 34-yard bomb to Darvin Adams on third-and-9, ripped off a 35-yard run and easily scored on a 3-yarder to push the Tiger lead back to 17 (31-14) 1:06 before halftime. McIntosh's 29-yard field goal sent the Cats into the locker room down by two TDs.
Kentucky got the big turnover it needed on Auburn's first possession of the second half when safety Winston Guy got his first career interception. UK failed to capitalize, however, when the drive was stalled by a fumbled snap. Locke also re-injured a bruised shoulder on a third-and-12 draw play.
The UK defense suddenly found its mojo in the third, forcing back-to-back three-and-outs following Guy's interception. Cobb then took the game over. First, he barreled his way for a 16-yard catch-and-run TD that brought the Cats to within seven, 31-24, at 8:18 of the third. Then he spun and reversed field to avoid pressure, leaving defensive end Nosa Eguae in the dust, and scrambled 26 yards to the Auburn 1. Cobb then took it in for six on the next play to knot the game at 31 at 4:03.
UK thought it had forced a turnover on Auburn's final drive when Terrell Zachery fumbled, but the officials ruled that Randall Burden didn't have control of the ball before going out of bounds.
"I'm still wanting to see that fumble," defensive coordinator Steve Brown said. "We needed a break like that."
It was the latest in a long chapter of near-misses for the Kentucky program.
"They all hurt," Phillips said. "They all rip your guts out. Whether you're a player, I don't feel any different than those players or those assistant coaches. They rip your guts out; there's no question about that. But we've got to pick ourselves up, still got a lot of football to play, and we'll start getting prepared tomorrow."