Kentucky didn’t play a perfect game at Georgia and still kept things tight against their top-10 opponent most of the way.
Imperfections reared their head in the most untimely moments, however.
▪ The holding penalty by Logan Stenberg that negated what would have been a UK red-zone trip. It transformed into a punt following an incomplete pass to Ahmad Wagner on third-and-16.
▪ Max Duffy’s shanked punt that traveled only 15 yards and put Georgia in Kentucky territory for the first time.
▪ A fumble by Lynn Bowden recovered by Georgia at UK’s 31
▪ A double error — a high-but-retrievable throw from Bowden to Chris Rodriguez dropped in the end zone — seemingly assured it as the third quarter closed.
Those weren’t the only mistakes, but they all were ones that occurred in the third quarter and all but ended Kentucky’s chance of an upset after a promising first half. Georgia’s 92-yard, 13-play march down the field to go up 21-0 after the Cats failed to score to open the final period was the nail.
That final scoring drive was the only time that Georgia crossed midfield without starting in UK territory. Kentucky forced six Georgia punts and a turnover on downs on the other seven Bulldogs possessions that started on their side of the field.
It was all for naught.
“I’m very proud of our players, and not because we play hard and come close. You know our program’s well beyond just wanting to play somebody close,” UK head coach Mark Stoops said. “We play to win each and every week. But it’s about their preparation and attitude and the things that we’re doing. I’ve been pleased. It’s been a tough season.”
Down 21-0 with 6:24 to play, Kentucky’s coaching staff elected to run Bowden back out instead of switching to Sawyer Smith — listed as a possible starter this week — or Walker Wood, listed as UK’s backup. There was speculation that in such a scenario, UK might make a change to prevent Bowden from getting hurt in an out-of-reach situation.
Stoops wasn’t asked about Wood, but he said “it’s difficult” to continue answering questions about Smith, who at times during the game warmed up on the sidelines.
“He’s close,” Stoops said. “It’s tough on a cold, rainy, miserable night to put him in when he’s just barely getting close to being ready to play. He would go. You saw him go in the South Carolina game. He would play if his arm was falling off, but I can’t do that to him again.
“It was a tough night and we knew it was gonna be a tough grind. So we did what we did. We gave ourselves the best option we felt like we had at this point.”
Rodriguez saw extensive action after Kavosiey Smoke left the game with an arm injury in the first quarter. He rushed six times for 19 yards and had a 17-yard kickoff return to open the second half.
The dropped touchdown was his second “should have been” score; he fumbled a ball into the end zone that was recovered by Justin Rigg for UK’s first TD of the season against Toledo.
“I hate it for the kid that he dropped that ball,” UK co-offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “He’s got really good hands. He’s made some unbelievable plays for us in practice and in scrimmages this fall. I just hate it for him, but he’ll bounce back, just like he did from the first game.”
It was the first time since the Mississippi State game that Kentucky’s defense forced an opponent to punt on its first possession and the first time since the Eastern Michigan game that an opponent didn’t score in the opening quarter. The 270 yards UK gave up to Georgia were its fewest allowed this year.
Cornerback Brandin Echols said Saturday’s rain was a factor in favor of the Cats’ defensive effort. He was upset about the loss but not about the effort.
“Coach Stoops tells us to keep fighting, keep pushing,” Echols said. “We’re a great defense. We can execute anything. We especially proved tonight that we can be great.”
Max Duffy took full responsibility for the poor punt that primed Georgia for its first touchdown. “It was just a terrible kick,” he said, not giving the rain and wind any credit.
“I was having a decent night before that,” Duffy said. “It’s just one of those things. I’d like to think I could hit every one perfect but I guess not. I think career long and career short in the same night, so that’s how punting goes.
“I’m disappointed because we were obviously in the game at that point and if I had flipped the field there, it’s big for us.”