The way things are going this season, the Kentucky Wildcats might have to change their nickname to the Moles because they've mastered the art of digging holes for themselves.
Three weeks ago, it was a trio of first-half turnovers in their own territory that cost the Cats at Mississippi. The next two weeks, it was a sleepwalking defense that got UK behind early. The Wildcats went back to the Ole Miss format against Georgia Saturday night, when they again gave it away three times deep on their side of the field in the first half to fall behind by 18. And unlike last week's game against South Carolina, there was no big comeback as the Bulldogs held on for a 44-31 win in front of a crowd of 70,884 at Commonwealth Stadium.
"Turning the ball over is one thing, but turning the ball over deep on your side of the field, it's hard to overcome that," said Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline. "I feel like we've been playing this way all year. We've always been down, and it's been turnovers, bad field position or not being able to score enough early. It almost seems like our motto, like that's going to be how we play football. We're making it tough on ourselves."
The loss dropped Kentucky to 4-4 overall and 1-4 in the Southeastern Conference and ended any hopes the Cats had of contending for the East division crown.
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UK outgained Georgia 423-290 but had four turnovers to none for the Bulldogs, who also got a 100-yard kickoff return from Brandon Boykin.
"It's real frustrating," said senior defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin. "It's been a problem since I've been here. We always put ourselves in a hole. We have memorable comebacks, but we always have those, 'Man, why do we shoot ourselves in the foot?' questions when we lose these games."
Georgia sophomore Washaun Ealey set a school record with five rushing touchdowns, three of which came after the Wildcats turned it over in their own territory. Ealey finished with 157 rushing yards on 28 carries.
The Bulldogs took over at the UK 29 after Justin Houston sacked Hartline and forced a fumble on the game's opening possession. Ealey scored on a 3-yard run four plays later to get Georgia on the board at 11:57.
Kentucky converted four times on third-and-long on its next possession, setting up a Craig McIntosh 41-yard field goal with 6:43 left in the first to cut it to 7-3.
But Boykin took the ensuing kickoff and broke a tackle near the middle of the field, cut toward the left sideline and dismissed a last-ditch tackle effort by McIntosh near midfield, giving the Bulldogs a 14-3 lead despite running just four plays from scrimmage.
UK averted further disaster on its next series after La'Rod King fumbled on a 19-yard reception. Georgia took over at the UK 33, but Blair Walsh was wide left on a 47-yard field-goal attempt.
But the Kentucky offense continued to give the Bulldogs a short field. Hartline was stuffed on a fourth-and-inches quarterback sneak at the Kentucky 39, and Georgia cashed in when Ealey scored on another short run to make it 21-3 at the 13:04 mark.
"We expect to get half an inch on fourth-and-1; I don't care how many guys they put up there," UK Coach Joker Phillips said. "We expect when it's fourth and inches to get it. And it cost us. It did. I'll take the blame for that. Again, put our defense out with a short field, and you can't do that. Looking back, we probably should have punted. But again, we expect to get that."
The comedy of errors continued for the Cats. After a Drew Butler 56-yard punt pinned them back at their 2, Donald Russell fumbled a pitch from Hartline, and Justin Houston recovered at the UK 5. Ealey then tacked on TD No. 3, a 2-yarder that put the Cats in a 28-3 hole with 6:47 left in the second.
The Wildcats managed to hold on to the ball on their next series, and the result was a touchdown. Raymond Sanders gave the offense a boost with a couple of nice runs and receptions, and Hartline found King over the middle for a 35-yard TD late in the second quarter.
Despite outgaining Georgia 200-96, Kentucky went into the locker room down 28-10, just like last week.
"You come in at halftime and it's like, 'We've been here before," Phillips said.
But that's where the similarities with the South Carolina game ended. Georgia had its first sustained drive to start the half, marching 70 yards on seven plays and taking a 34-10 lead at 11:05 on Ealey's fourth touchdown, again from two yards out.
Hartline went 27-for-43 for a career-high 353 yards and four touchdowns, but he was picked off on UK's first drive when Georgia cornerback Sanders Commings got in front of Chris Matthews and intercepted the ball in the end zone.
Kentucky made it 34-17 when Hartline hooked up with King again, this time from 22 yards out with 41 seconds remaining in the third. But the Cats failed to recover the onside kick, and Ealey scored his fifth TD on a 1-yard run with 13:53 left.
Kentucky didn't surrender, though. A Hartline-to-Matthews 39-yard touchdown connection and Randall Cobb's two-point conversion pass to Matt Roark made it a two-score game at 41-25 with 10:52 left.
UK elected to kick away, and Georgia ate up eight minutes and got a Walsh 30-yard field goal with 2:47 remaining. The Bulldogs were able to pound out yardage despite Kentucky's focus on the run.
"Somebody's got to make the play for you," Phillips said. "You've got to get yourself off the field when we've got nine men in the box."
The Wildcats now must get ready for a road game at No. 24 Mississippi State next week. Phillips is hoping that his team can finally get out of the gates quickly.
"I think we know what type of team we have," he said. "We've got a team of fighters. There's no question about that. That's not hard to determine. I'd like to see what type of football team we truly have. We'll only see that when we see this team play for four quarters, and we have not done that yet."
Sanders stands out
With Derrick Locke out for the second consecutive week and Donald Russell losing a costly fumble deep in Kentucky territory, true freshman Raymond Sanders got a chance to be the feature back and shined. Sanders ran for a career-high 79 yards on 16 carries and caught seven passes for 77 yards, including a 9-yard TD from Mike Hartline late in the fourth quarter.
"We've seen it most of the year from Raymond," UK Coach Joker Phillips said. "Raymond is a really determined runner; he's a really sharp kid, catches the ball well."
Junior outside linebacker Justin Houston had 31/2 tackles for loss, 21/2 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry for Georgia.