Kentucky trailed by eight points with 3:18 left on the first-half clock when Georgia took over the football on its own 49-yard line. Bulldogs sophomore Mecole Hardman had ripped off a 20-yard punt return. Georgia’s star running backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, were just getting warmed up. Kentucky could not afford to allow a score.
Yet score Georgia did. Michel bounced off right tackle, hit his accelerator and raced to a 37-yard touchdown with 1:51 left in the half. It was the fourth time this year UK had allowed a touchdown inside the final two minutes of the first half. And if there was a moment when you knew the host Bulldogs were well on their way to a 42-13 win over the visiting Wildcats, that was it.
“You have to credit Georgia,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said.
Bottom line: The Cats couldn’t stop the Dawgs. Chubb rushed for 151 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries on his Senior Day. Fellow senior Michel scored three touchdowns to go with his 87 yards on 12 carries. Even freshman D’Andre Swift added 66 yards on just seven attempts as Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs successfully shook off last week’s 40-17 loss at Auburn to crush the Cats.
Bottom line for Kentucky: While Stoops and Company are headed to a second straight bowl game, they’re nowhere near ready to play with the SEC’s big boys. They’ve yet to dent that gap. With one regular-season game to go, the two best teams on Kentucky’s schedule beat the Cats by a combined 87-20. Mississippi State whipped UK 45-7 in Starkville. Georgia smashed the Cats by 29 in Athens.
It’s one thing to go toe-to-toe with the (former) marquee names in the SEC East, both of whom have fallen on hard times. Kentucky outplayed Florida and lost 28-27 in September. The Cats beat Tennessee 29-26 in October, just UK’s second win over the Vols since 1985. But both the teams are looking for a new coach, what with Florida’s Jim McElwain and Tennessee’s Butch Jones both handed pink slips.
It’s quite another to compete with the best teams at their peak. With a 5-1 record, coming off a bye week, Kentucky proved no match for Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs. With a 7-3 record, coming off a convincing 23-point win at Vanderbilt, Kentucky proved no match for Smart’s Bulldogs.
“I was disappointed in the way we played,” said Stoops afterward. “We knew we’d have to play some very good football on our end and I really didn’t feel like we did.”
To be fair, Kentucky caught Georgia at an inopportune time. Still smarting from their first defeat, the blowout loss at Auburn, the angry Dawgs were ready to play. Plus, it was Senior Day. Plus, it was Military Appreciation Day, complete with a flyover and multiple patriotic song selections. Plus, Georgia still had plenty to play for, given that the Dawgs had already clinched the SEC East. Beat Kentucky, Georgia Tech next week and either Alabama or Auburn in the SEC Championship Game and Georgia is probably among the College Football Playoff quartet.
Last but not least, Georgia is just a lot better than its SEC opponents right now, Kentucky included. Stoops has done good things raising UK’s conference competitiveness from 0-8 his first season to 2-6, 2-6 and now back-to-back 4-4 campaigns. Kentucky had not finished with a winning record in its league since 1977. The streak continues.
It’s not a stretch to say Stoops is close to getting the Cats where Rich Brooks had the program a decade ago. Good enough to beat the teams at or below UK’s level. Not good enough to beat the teams at the next level.
Saturday only illustrated the point. When Kentucky had to get a stop, it couldn’t get a stop. Not counting kneel-downs at the end of each half, Georgia’s 381 rushing yards were the most a once-stout UK run defense has allowed in Stoops’ five years as head coach. In fact, it was the most since Florida rushed for 405 yards on Sept. 24, 2011.
“We need to step it up and play a lot better,” Stoops said Saturday.
There’s the regular-season finale next week with archrival and non-conference foe Louisville. But for Kentucky, another SEC football season is over. And the Cats have yet to close the gap.
Louisville at Kentucky
Noon Saturday (SEC)
Kentucky football 2017