What did Georgia do to hurt the Kentucky defense?
It has often been written during Kentucky’s magic-carpet ride through the first two-thirds of its 2018 football season that the current Wildcats defense is the best since the Art Still-led, 10-1 Cats in 1977.
That statement remains true as you read this.
However, with the 2018 SEC East Division championship at stake Saturday at Kroger Field, No. 6 Georgia (8-1, 6-1 SEC) showed the No. 9 Cats there is still a gap between UK (7-2, 5-2) and college football’s elite.
With Georgia running backs D’Andre Swift and (156 yards and a touchdowns) and Elijah Holyfield (115 yards and two TDs) running through, around and past the UK defense, the Bulldogs advanced to the SEC Championship Game with a 34-17 victory before 64,543 fans.
In the most consequential UK football game since Bear Bryant, Babe Parilli and Bob Gain led the Wildcats to a 13-7 upset of No. 1 Oklahoma in the 1951 (after the 1950 season) Sugar Bowl that snapped the Sooners’ 31-game winning streak, the Kentucky defense that has played so well in 2018 was served a slice of humble pie.
“We missed more tackles than I can remember,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said afterward. “They rushed for 300 (-plus) yards. You are not going to win very many games like that.”
A Kentucky defense that had given up only 858 yards rushing in its first eight games surrendered 331 yards to Georgia.
Before Saturday, UK defenders had rarely missed tackles. When runners broke through the line of scrimmage, there have consistently been Cats reinforcements at the next level of the defense. Teams have rarely gotten the edge to run outside on the Cats.
On Saturday, Georgia’s Swift and Holyfield ran through UK tackles. Kentucky frequently lost outside containment.
Most costly, Swift broke through the line of scrimmage and roared all but untouched for an 83-yard touchdown that put Georgia ahead 28-3 with 7:56 left in the third quarter and essentially iced the game.
“We weren’t in the right spots at the right time,” Kentucky safety Davonte Robinson said. “We weren’t gap sound.”
For the Kentucky “D,” it was a stark contrast to the prior week, when the Wildcats held Missouri without a first down in eight second-half possessions while grinding out a 15-14 comeback victory.
UK faced ample adversity Saturday. Free safety Darius West, a key component in UK’s run defense, was ejected for targeting early in the third quarter and was replaced by ex-Henry Clay star Robinson (nine tackles).
“It didn’t help, no question,” Kentucky defensive coordinator Matt House said of the ejection of West. “DRob has done a lot of good things this year, but Darius, his game is run-fitting.”
Kentucky also likely paid a price for the fact that both of its starting inside linebackers, senior Jordan Jones and junior Kash Daniel, were playing with clubs on to protect broken hands.
“It doesn’t help, it doesn’t help,” Stoops said.
Still, most of Kentucky’s problem was Georgia. Running behind an offensive line that controlled the game, Swift and Holyfield displayed a dynamism UK could not match.
That mattered because the key to beating Georgia is stopping the run. Over the past two seasons, Coach Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs have lost only two regular-season games. In falling 40-17 last season at Auburn, Georgia was outrushed 237-46.
When the Dawgs lost 36-16 this season at LSU, they were outgained 275-113.
With Georgia controlling Kentucky with its run game, the Wildcats didn’t get a chance to unleash the best part of its defense — the pass rushing of Josh Allen. UK’s senior OLB had a relatively quiet three tackles and no sacks (though he did recover two unforced Georgia fumbles).
“We knew all week you had to earn the right to rush the passer,” UK’s House said. “I think (Georgia QB Jake Fromm) only dropped back, like, 10 times where they weren’t play-action (passes). You’ve got to stop the run to earn the right to rush the passer.”
In the big picture, last week was the most enjoyable week provided by the Kentucky football program in eons. The Long-Suffering UK Football Fans so deserved the excitement of their team playing for an SEC championship of any kind.
On Nov. 3, 2012, Kentucky was embarrassed 40-0 by Vanderbilt in a mostly empty Commonwealth Stadium en route to a 2-10 slog.
On Nov. 3, 2018, the Wildcats played Georgia for a berth in the SEC Championship Game and — if they can win their final three games — can finish 10-2.
Under Stoops and his coaching staff, Kentucky football has marched a gazillion miles forward in these past six years.
Alas, on Saturday, the defending SEC champions showed the best Kentucky defense of the past four decades there is still a gap between the Cats and the elite of college football.
Mark Story (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory