UK Football

John Clay: Lousy start, communication doomed Cats

Kentucky wide receiver Dorian Baker, center, leaves the field after Auburn defeated Kentucky, 30-27. The University of Kentucky hosted Auburn University, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington. Photo by Jonathan Palmer
Kentucky wide receiver Dorian Baker, center, leaves the field after Auburn defeated Kentucky, 30-27. The University of Kentucky hosted Auburn University, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington. Photo by Jonathan Palmer Herald-Leader

You could say that Kentucky fell to Auburn 30-27 on Thursday night at Commonwealth Stadium because the Cats stalled at midfield on their final drive needing just a field goal to send the game into overtime.

On fourth-and-3, Patrick Towles was sacked for a 2-yard loss. Ball game.

Kentucky didn't lose this game at the end, however, the Cats lost it at the beginning. After a 10-day layoff, Kentucky came out for this ESPN showcase looking confused, disorganized and incapable of keeping up with Gus Malzahn's up-tempo offense.

If the Cats were blinded early by the bright lights of Thursday night, for Auburn the lights finally clicked on. The Tigers converted eight of 11 third-down situations in the first half on the way to a 23-10 halftime lead. It proved to be a mountain a little too high for the Cats to climb.

UK looked to be in the dark defensively much of the first half. The Cats couldn't get lined up. Communication was a problem. Head coach Mark Stoops spent a good part of the night jumping up and down trying to get his players' attention to move to different spots on the field.

Late in the fourth quarter, when Auburn was punting the football to UK for the final time, clinging to a three-point lead, Kentucky got caught thinking the Tigers were going for it on fourth-and-1. Cats tried to hustle off as others hustled on. When Auburn's Kevin Phillips punted, Kentucky had just eight players on the field. That was the story of the night.

It was a disappointing loss for a Kentucky team that entered the game 4-1 overall and 2-1 in the SEC.

Hope that Stoops' club would actually be a factor in the SEC East was strengthened by multiple misfortunes within the division. Last Saturday, Georgia's star running back Nick Chubb injured his knee on the first play from scrimmage at Tennessee. He's done for the season. Monday brought news that Florida quarterback Will Grier tested positive for a PED. He's done for the season.

Now UK is 2-2 in the conference with a tough Oct. 24 trip to Mississippi State next on the calendar.

Auburn entered Thursday night with something to prove, however. Ranked No. 6 in the preseason AP poll. Malzahn had not been able to settle on a quarterback, and new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp had not been able to provide the quick fix for which the Tigers hoped.

Malzahn stuck with redshirt freshman Sean White, who completed 12 of 18 passes for 86 yards in the first half. White and his teammates found ways to keep drives alive. Auburn converted four third-down situations on its first possession, an 80-yard scoring drive. It set the tone for the night. Auburn finished 11-for-18 on third down.

Kentucky got 113 yards on 16 carries from running back Boom Williams, but there were stretches where you wondered why the sophomore didn't touch the ball more.

Auburn came into the game ranked 107th nationally in run defense, but Kentucky quarterback Towles threw the football 44 times, completing 27 for 359 yards with an interception.

To be fair, the Cats were playing from behind in the second half. Kentucky had to call pass plays to get back in it.

But at least part of the reason the Cats fell behind had to do with the flat-footed start. Malzahn's mode of operation is to go fast and run as many plays as possible. No secret there. That puts pressure on the defense to get lined up, to communicate to be in the right positions. Despite the extra preparation time, Kentucky couldn't get that done.

As for another white-knuckler, get used to it. Tight games are likely to be the norm. Looking at the rest of the schedule, there will be plenty more close games, with a small margin for error. In those games, you have to get the basics right, the little things right.

"There are a lot of things we can do better," said Stoops afterward, "and we will do better."

In this one, however, under the bright lights of Thursday night, the Cats couldn't get the details done.

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