John Clay

UK football comes up short, but should benefit from the experience

Well, the week was fun.

Saturday, not so much.

It didn’t turn out the way Kentucky fans wanted to, their beloved but forever struggling football Wildcats, finally on the brink of a division title, one victory away from the program’s first dream-come-true trip to the SEC Championship Game, only to spend the afternoon chasing without ever being able to catch the lead Dawg.

That would be the Georgia Bulldogs, last year’s College Football Playoff runner-up and now this year’s SEC East champion thanks to a convincing 34-17 victory over the Cats at Kroger Field.

“You have to give them credit,” said UK Coach Mark Stoops afterward. “They beat us in all phases.”

That they did. Kirby Smart’s team rolled up 444 yards of total offense — the most the standout UK defense had surrendered all season — including an eye-popping 331 yards on the ground. Georgia running back D’Andre Swift lived up to his name, rushing for 156 yards, including a shake-it-loose 83-yard sprint for a back-breaking touchdown. Elijah Holyfield, son of former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, added 115 more for good measure.

In the end, sixth-ranked Georgia scored 34 points on a Kentucky defense that had allowed just 13 points per game (tied with Clemson for fewest in the country) as the Bulldogs improved to 8-1 overall and 6-1 in the league. Kentucky dropped to 7-2 overall and 5-2 in conference play.

“I think this had more to do with them,” said Stoops afterward, “than it did with us.”

That’s probably true. If Saturday was a measuring stick game against one of the sport’s elite, the Cats came up short. Georgia ultimately possessed too much brawn up front, too much skill at the skill positions and too much overall talent on a roster fortified by classes traditionally near the top of the yearly recruiting rankings.

Plus, Georgia had been here before. “Big Games” are nothing new for the tradition-rich program or Smart’s current collection. Georgia won the East last season. It beat Auburn in the conference title game. It beat Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. It came within a whisker of beating Alabama in the national title game. No instructions necessary.

This was all new stuff for the Cats. Very new. Why until this campaign, UK had gone 40 years without producing a winning SEC record much less being a single victory away from the division title, in a winner-take-all game.

And what fun stuff it was. Seriously, after last Saturday’s miracle 15-14 win at Missouri, UK football morphed into the talk of the town, if not the sport, garnering national attention, even placing basketball on the back burner. Old folks (blush) deemed Saturday’s matchup as the most important Kentucky football event in nearly 70 years.

And then the game started and Georgia’s Mecole Hardman was returning a Max Duffy punt 65 yards to set up the Bulldogs’ first score. Soon, the shifty Swift was magically eluding UK tacklers for a 20-yard score. And then Georgia took the second half kickoff and marched 78 yards to the end zone. When Swift slipped through a crack in the Cats defense into the great wide open for his 83-yard score the deed was basically done.

Give Kentucky credit for hanging in there. It could have gotten ugly, but it didn’t. The fans stuck around to see A.J. Rose turn a tip drill into a 31-yard touchdown catch to make it 31-17 with 9:01 left. That just wasn’t enough time.

“We can learn from this,” Stoops said.

Learn what?

“Well, many things,” said the coach. “Like the execution from the top-three, four, five team. The execution that they have and they are obviously very talented. They are well-coached.”

Kentucky’s talent is better, too, just not better than Georgia’s talent. Saturday’s bottom-line lesson is that. It takes players. Talented players. Experienced players. Well-coached players.

Saturday, Kentucky did not quite have enough of those players, not yet, but it did have enough to at least give itself a chance, a chance at something special.

And for Kentucky fans, having that chance sure was fun.

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