It was an offseason where the word “finish” was used in every practice, every meeting room, every lifting session.
It was the word of choice after two straight seasons of collapsing at the end, finishing 5-7 and not getting to a bowl. It was the word of choice after Kentucky gave away a huge lead to Louisville in the season finale last season at Commonwealth Stadium.
But on Saturday night after a haunting déjà vu for Kentucky, the word of choice was sorry.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever in my career, ever wanted to apologize for a game, but that’s a tough pill to swallow right there, and I do,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said after his team coughed up a 25-point lead to Southern Miss and fell 44-35.
“I didn’t think I would ever do that. That’s a tough loss and our fans deserved better.”
The Kentucky coach said it again later.
“I apologize because our fans do deserve better, and that’s not acceptable and I get it,” he said. “And we’ll get back to work, and I know this team will respond, and we’ll do some good things.”
Part of the “finish” concept was not letting one play, one mistake define the game. There were a few that will hang over Stoops, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot for a while.
The first was a Southern Miss touchdown to end the first half, a 71-yard pass from Nick Mullens to Isaiah Jones to pull the Golden Eagles within 35-17 with 30 seconds to go.
“At the end of the first half when we gave up the home run, that was a punch in the gut that we had to respond to — get it behind us and move on,” Stoops said. “And that’s exactly what we talked about, and we didn’t do that.”
Southern Miss Coach Jay Hopson called it a “huge” play.
“It was big because that gave us a spark,” he said. “Coming out and getting the ball in the second half, we talked about that. I said if we get this score, we’re right back in this thing. And that’s what they did.”
The other play that stuck with Stoops was the near-interception by Blake McClain, who had a fastball hit him in the chest that he couldn’t hold on to.
“That set us up again and we drop it,” Stoops said. “And that’s just one play that sticks out in my mind, but there’s so many.”
For Kentucky’s offense, it was one of any of the three turnovers in the second half. Because of sustained drives by the Eagles, UK’s offense had the ball for less than eight minutes of the second half.
“We had five possessions and three of them were turnovers,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “We didn’t get anything going.”
The play Gran would most like to have back beyond those miscues was a naked bootleg to the tight end call he made after the Cats recovered an onside kick still up 35-24.
Garrett Johnson caught a 32-yard pass to get the Cats to the 19-yard line and things came undone. The possession ended in Drew Barker getting sacked and fumbling the ball away.
It was the “momentum change of the whole game,” said Gran, who said he wished he’d called a run play there. “If we can go in there and we can score, I think we have a chance to put them away.”
For his part, Barker wanted to have all of the mistakes he made back. He said the long drives by Southern Miss, which ran 53 of its 95 plays in the second half for 295 yards, killed UK’s momentum.
“Southern Miss had some long sustained drives, which can kind of get you in a lull on the sidelines,” Barker said. “That was probably the biggest thing, to come out with the same intensity we did in the first half.”
‘I am happy for him’
Former Kentucky offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson didn’t speak to the media after the Golden Eagles’ victory at Commonwealth Stadium, where he’d been fired as UK’s offensive boss just a few months before.
But UK’s Stoops did meet with Dawson after the game to congratulate him.
“They did a heck of a job,” Stoops said of the offense. “That goes without saying. Coach (Shannon) Dawson and all that he’s gone through, I am happy for him. Obviously, I want our team to play better, but he did a heck of a job and they kept us off balance.
“It’s a team game, as you know. When one side is struggling, we can’t let them double us up in time of possession. That can’t happen.”
At least one Southern Miss player was happy to speak for his offensive coordinator after the victory.
“I am so proud of him,” senior quarterback Nick Mullens said of Dawson. “The coaches deserve a lot of credit, all the credit in the world. They put us in positions to succeed, and we are thankful for that.”
▪ Kentucky’s leading wide receiver last season, Dorian Baker, missed the game while coming back from a hamstring injury sustained after the Cats’ second scrimmage.
“Dorian was questionable on his hamstring,” Stoops said. “He had a hamstring and hopefully he’ll be back this week. He was close.”
▪ There was no update on Blake McClain, who took a hard hit at midfield and laid face down on the turf for several minutes before being helped off the field.
▪ Linebacker Josh Allen, who had nine tackles, left the game with what looked like a serious shoulder injury. Stoops had no update on him, either.
▪ UK senior J.D. Harmon had two big interceptions and moved to seven for his career.
▪ Junior running back Boom Williams rushed 13 times for 94 yards and moved to 1,435 career rushing yards, ranking him 20th on UK’s career list.
Southern Miss 44, Kentucky 35
USM—Smith 8 run (Shaunfield kick), 09:43. UK—Badet 72 yd pass from Barker (MacGinnis kick), 06:23. UK—Johnson 43 yd pass from Barker (MacGinnis kick), 04:15. UK—Ross 9 yd pass from Barker (MacGinnis kick), :32.
UK—Johnson 53 yd pass from Barker (MacGinnis kick), 07:04. USM—FG Shaunfield 31, 02:50. UK—Kemp 7 run (MacGinnis kick), 01:00. USM—I.Jones 71 yd pass from Mullens (Shaunfield kick), :36.
USM—Mullens 1 run (Shaunfield kick), 10:40. USM—Ju.Allen 18 yd pass from Mullens (Shaunfield kick), 06:51. USM—Mullens 1 run (Shaunfield kick), 01:05.
USM—FG Shaunfield 49 yd, 10:36. USM—FG Shaunfield 25 yd, 02:25.
Time of Possession
RUSHING—Southern Miss, Smith 36-173, Payne 16-100, Holmes 2-7, Washington 0-0, Mullens 10-(minus 14). Kentucky, Williams 13-94, Kemp 5-7, Barker 7-29.
PASSING—Southern Miss, Mullens 18-28-3-258. Kentucky, Yeomans 1-1-0-(minus 10), Barker 15-24-1-323.
RECEIVING—Southern Miss, Smith 5-40, Jones 3-93, Allen 3-30, Thompson 3-25, Staggers 2-46, Robertson 1-14, Ricard 1-10. Kentucky, Johnson 6-143, Richardson 2-74, Badet 2-72, Williams 2-16, Ross 1-9, Conrad 1-5, Kemp 1-4, MacGinnis 1-(minus 10).
TACKLES LEADERS—Southern Miss, Bradley 7, Armstrong 5, Yancey 5, Antoine 5, Foster 5. Kentucky, Jones 19, Walker 10, Love 9, Allen 9, McClain 9, Harmon 8, McWilson 7.
TACKLES FOR LOSS—Southern Miss, Bradley 2, Yancey 2, Thigpen 1.5, Ruff 1, Parker 1, Poole 1, Nelson .5. Kentucky, Jones 2, Ware 2, Miggins 2, Allen 1, Edwards 1, Walker .5, McWilson .5.
QB SACKS—Southern Miss, Bradley 1, Yancey 1, Thigpen 1, Poole 1. Kentucky, Jones 1, Allen 1, Ware 1.
INTERCEPTIONS—Southern Miss, Bradley 1. Kentucky, Harmon 2, McClain 1.
FUMBLE RECOVERIES—Southern Miss, Bradley 1, Thigpen 1. Kentucky, none.