For most of the 2008 season, the defense has been the Kentucky football team's "Old Faithful," providing a sense of security that it could keep the team in games or bail out the Wildcats in a pinch.
But Old Faithful ran dry Saturday against Georgia. On an afternoon when the much-maligned offense and special teams gave the Cats a lift, the defense came up short.
The 14th-ranked Bulldogs blistered UK for 520 yards, including a 376-yard, three-touchdown performance by quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Stafford's 11-yard pass to freshman A.J. Green with 1:54 left turned out to be the game-winner as Georgia held on for a 42-38 victory in a wild shootout in front of 70,626 at Commonwealth Stadium.
UK moved into scoring position in the final minute and got a break when Jarius Wynn was whistled for a 15-yard facemask penalty on quarterback Randall Cobb after his fourth-and-2 pass from the 26 fell incomplete.
But on the next play, Georgia defensive end Demarcus Dobbs leaped in the air and made a one-handed interception of Cobb's attempted pass to Tony Dixon. The Bulldogs ran out the clock.
Four of Georgia's six scoring drives were four plays or less, and the Bulldogs had 11 plays of 20 yards or longer.
"Unfortunately, one of the phases of our team that has played outstanding football all year long and has put us in the position that we're in, didn't have a very good day," UK Coach Rich Brooks said about his defense. "Our defense gave up a lot of big, big plays in the passing game."
Perhaps the biggest came on the Bulldogs' final drive. Trailing 38-35 with 3:53 left, Georgia took over at its 15. But instead of making the Bulldogs at least work for a game-tying field goal or go-ahead score, Kentucky allowed Mohamed Massaquoi to take a slant over the middle, split two defenders and race 78 yards to the UK 7.
"We had a lot of breakdowns that are hard for me to fathom," defensive coordinator Steve Brown said. "The defense let the team down this week. We could have won that game. In my opinion, the defense is the reason why we lost the game. For me that's unacceptable, and I've got to do a better job. Whatever it is, I'm going to figure it out, and we're going to come back next week ready to go."
Kentucky forced a third-and-goal from the 11, but Stafford escaped pressure, rolled right and tossed to the right corner of the end zone for Green. Green, one of the nation's top freshman prospects, went up, outfought four UK defenders and came down with the ball to give the Bulldogs a 42-38 lead with 1:54 left.
UK defensive end Jeremy Jarmon had an angle on Stafford, but he said the quarterback made a crafty move to avoid the rush.
"I don't know if I'm ever going to get over that," Jarmon said. "That was probably the most aware move I've ever seen a quarterback make. I had my outside arm free, and I was preparing to bring him down, and he ducked. He ducked his head into my hand, so the only way I could have brought him down was to face-mask him.
"I couldn't grab him, but I was able to get a hit on him. When I rolled over, I saw one of their receivers coming down with the football and I couldn't believe it. I thought he just threw it up for grabs."
The UK defense didn't have it from the opening kickoff. The Bulldogs went 65 yards in four plays, hitting pay dirt on a Stafford 29-yard TD pass to Massaquoi less than two minutes into the game.
The UK offense went three-and-out, and Georgia moved 73 yards in seven plays for a quick 14-0 lead. Knowshon Moreno broke through an arm tackle at the 2-yard line and plunged into the end zone at the 7:38 mark.
Brown said he noticed before the game that his unit didn't have any pep in its step.
"To me, our pre-game warm-up was slow," Brown said. "I looked at Georgia, and they were going full-speed and fast. I think it's a direct indicator of how we came out. We can't spot anyone 14 points. Period."
The Wildcats used the ground game to rally. Tony Dixon scored on a 3-yard run with 1:14 left in the opening quarter, and then the legs of Cobb tied the score midway through the second.
Throwing in a mix of sprintouts and option keepers, Cobb had runs of 13, 14 and 18 yards, setting up his 2-yard run for a 14-14 tie with 7:15 left.
But Georgia had another quick-strike drive to take the lead before halftime. Stafford hit Michael Moore for 46 yards before play-faking and hitting an open Shaun Chapas over the middle for an 11-yard TD to make it 21-14. The Wildcats' special teams then came up with a barrage of big plays after intermission.
Georgia was punting deep in its own territory when UK freshman Danny Trevathan broke clean up the middle and blocked Brian Mimbs' punt.
That set up a Cobb 10-yard TD run that gave the Cats their first lead (24-21) with 7:31 left in the third period.
After Georgia took a 28-24 lead on Moreno's 20-yard run, a 64-yard punt by Kentucky's Tim Masthay pinned Georgia back at its 3.
After the defense held, UK used a timeout with 12 seconds left to force Mimbs to punt into the wind. Mimbs' punt went just 18 yards, setting UK up at the Georgia 20. Dixon then tacked on his second TD, a 14-yarder, to reclaim the lead for the Cats at 31-28 with 14:26 left.
That lead would last all of 37 seconds. Stafford found Green for a 42-yard gain, and then Moreno went untouched for an 18-yard TD to make it 35-31 Bulldogs at13:49.
Massaquoi had a career-high eight catches for 191 yards.
"We looked the worst I've seen in the past two years at covering the pass," Brown said. "We mixed some coverages, but it gets to a point where you say, 'What do I do now?' We can't play them zone, we can't play them man."
UK's pass defense wasn't helped by the loss of star cornerback Trevard Lindley, who left the game in the third quarter with patella tendinitis and did not return.
When asked if Lindley's absence had an effect on the final outcome, Brooks said, "You take one of best cornerbacks in the country out when the other team isn't having great success, and it doesn't take a genius to figure that out."
The Wildcats' special teams unit came through again to give UK its final lead. UK freshman Winston Guy took the ensuing kickoff 96 yards to the Georgia 4. Cobb scored on a 1-yard dive to put Kentucky back up 38-35 with 12:15 left.
Kentucky couldn't take advantage of Massaquoi fumbles on two straight possessions, leaving the door open for Stafford's game-winning drive.
Cobb finished with 187 total yards. The freshman ran for 82 yards on 18 carries, and he completed 12 of 20 passes for 105 yards.
UK (6-4, 2-4) will have to regroup for next Saturday night's game with Vanderbilt. And Old Faithful will have to rediscover itself.
"We didn't play the Kentucky defense we've been playing all year," senior safety Marcus McClinton said. "We consider ourselves a great defense and we gave up a lot of yards a lot of big plays early and late, so I will put this loss on the defense and myself as a leader."