NASHVILLE — A first-half comedy of errors turned into quite the drama on Saturday with Kentucky having a chance to beat Vanderbilt in the final minute.
But the show ended much the same way it has for the Cats the past five games: a loss with lots of questions and even more frustration.
"You see the stats and you watch the game and you're at a loss for words thinking, 'How did they lose the game?'" senior linebacker Khalid Henderson said after UK's 21-17 loss at Vanderbilt. "But it comes down to situations. You can give up as many yards, as many touchdowns, but not play certain situations right and you'll lose."
There were too many situations and too many decisions — empty trips in the red zone, three turnovers in the first half, a pick-six, a trick play that resulted in a 37-yard Vanderbilt touchdown before the half — the Kentucky head coach wished he could take back.
When asked if this was a low point in his three-year tenure at Kentucky, Mark Stoops said: "That's fair to say."
"We all need to accept it, starting with myself," Stoops continued, saying he wished he could take back going for a long sideline pass on fourth down at midfield. "I don't just say that. You can write what you want or whatever. I know I've got to make better decisions and put our team in a position to be successful."
In spite of itself, Kentucky managed to cut a 21-10 halftime deficit to 21-17 late in the third quarter on a Jojo Kemp 2-yard run.
It was part of a Boom Williams-fueled, 91-yard drive that included runs of 9 yards and 66 yards from the sophomore. Williams, who was coming back from an elbow injury, had 13 carries for 115 yards. Kentucky had 352 yards of offense.
The Cats' defense did its part in the second half, forcing the Commodores to turn it over on downs twice and punt five times.
In all, Vanderbilt managed 301 yards of offense, including 135 yards rushing. Ralph Webb had the bulk of those carries, gaining 113 yards on 33 carries.
"The defense did outstanding in my opinion," UK defensive tackle C.J. Johnson said. "It was just devastating to lose when you fought your heart out."
Kentucky had a chance to cut the lead to one with 10 minutes to go, but Austin MacGinnis' 37-yard field-goal attempt went wide left. The kicker had plenty of distractions before the kick. UK was short a player — substitution problems after injuries, Stoops said — and then a delay of game call pushed the kick back.
Those weren't the only points Kentucky missed out on.
Against Vanderbilt's nationally rated defense, Kentucky struggled to get much going, especially in critical situations.
The first one, early in the first half, saw Kentucky get four attempts at scoring from the 1-yard line and fail to move the ball after it had grabbed a 3-0 lead.
Then starter Patrick Towles tried to throw a fade route to Dorian Baker in the end zone, and it was picked off. Towles completed 10 of 26 passes for 67 yards.
Those empty trips left Kentucky (4-6, 2-6 Southeastern Conference), which lost its fourth game in five tries against Vanderbilt, feeling empty.
"We were trying to stick it in and we couldn't," offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "Ultimately, it's not good. The two things that stick out are the red zone opportunities and the turnovers. ... I thought we came out and moved the ball pretty decent at first then just shot ourselves in the foot."
In a game that featured a combined five turnovers in the first half, neither team seemed too eager to claim victory. But eventually Vanderbilt found a way.
The Commodores' only offensive touchdowns included a 37-yard score in the final minute of the half to an unnoticed receiver down the left sideline.
"Deception play that we got deceived on," Stoops said bluntly. "But it was legal. Totally legal."
Vandy's first touchdown came on a one-play drive after UK fumbled near its own end zone.
The Commodores (4-6, 2-4) also took advantage of a miscue by backup quarterback Drew Barker, who showed flashes of greatness guiding the Cats on a five-play, 70-yard drive that ended in a 7-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Timmons to give UK a 10-7 advantage.
But then Barker gave the points right back a few minutes later when Oren Burks picked off his pass and took it in 30 yards for a score to put Vanderbilt up for good, 21-10, with 38 seconds left in the first half.
The redshirt freshman quarterback connected on five of his eight pass attempts for 60 yards and the one touchdown.
To get bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010, the Cats will have to win their final two games of the season, both home games, first versus Charlotte on Saturday and then versus Louisville on Nov. 28.
But first they have to get over this defeat.
"Very difficult loss," Stoops said. "Heartbreaking for our team."