Call them the combustible Cats.
In the first half they were on fire and in the second half, they got burned.
After scoring 28 unanswered points in the first half and leading by as many as 25 points, Kentucky surrendered 34 straight on Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium and fell to Southern Miss 44-35.
Kentucky with its “finish” mantra this offseason struggled to do just that again, giving up yet another big lead as it did to end last season against Louisville. Kentucky has been outscored 58-0 in the second halves of its past two games.
In the third quarter, Southern Miss stormed back from its 18-point halftime deficit to grab a 38-35 lead on Nick Mullens’ second 1-yard scoring run of the half.
The Golden Eagles extended that lead to 41-35 on a 49-yard field goal by Parker Shaunfield. Southern Miss (1-0) scored on seven straight possessions.
The Eagles put up 261 yards of offense in the second half compared to just 56 for Kentucky, which had just two first downs after the break.
The road doesn’t get any easier for the Cats (0-1) who head to Gainesville on Saturday to face a Florida team that owns 29 straight victories over Kentucky.
The Cats looked to be on cruise control after a huge first half that included 387 yards of total offense, more than they amassed in six complete games last season.
UK struggled out of the gate, but found its rhythm first on a 72-yard strike from Drew Barker to Jeff Badet, and then two minutes later, the quarterback found Garrett Johnson for a 43-yarder, his first of two first-half touchdowns.
Barker threw five different passes of 30-plus yards in the first half and four touchdowns. He finished the game completing 15 of 24 throws for 323 yards and the four scores.
Kentucky went up 35-10 with a minute to go in the first half on Jojo Kemp’s 7-yard scamper up the middle, but Southern Miss responded 30 seconds later (on a 71-yard pass from Mullens to Isaiah Jones) over the UK secondary to make it 35-17 Cats at the half.
Southern Miss (1-0) continued its surge out of the half, using an 11-play, 84-yard drive to cut the Cats lead to 11 on the first of Mullens’ 1-yard scoring runs.
The Golden Eagles got the ball back on a sack and subsequent fumble by Barker that led to another score, this time on an 18-yard pass from Mullens to a wide open Julian Allen in the right corner of the end zone.
For the night, Mullens was 18-for-28 for 258 yards and two touchdowns to go with his two rushing touchdowns.
Running backs Ito Smith (36 carries, 173 yards, one touchdown) and George Payne (16 carries, 100 yards) gashed Kentucky on the ground in the second half.
In all, Southern Miss finished with 520 yards of total offense under new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who was making his return to Commonwealth Stadium after being fired by UK a season ago.
Southern Miss, which went 9-5 last season and went to a bowl game, snapped a 13-game losing streak to Southeastern Conference opponents dating back to 2000 when the Golden Eagles bested Alabama 21-0.
An announced crowd of 57,230 filed out of the stadium early in the fourth quarter.
On defense, Kentucky was led by Jordan Jones’ 19 tackles, including two for loss. He had 10 all of last season. Kobie Walker added 10 tackles.
Senior cornerback J.D. Harmon had two picks in the first half, including one beautiful one-hander.
Kentucky at Florida
3:30 p.m. Saturday (CBS-27)