Mark Story

A real downer: UK can't convert on 3rd

There was good news from what seems destined to be Kentucky's eternal quest to hang one defeat — just one — on Steve Spurrier:

The Wildcats really only had one bad down Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium.

Unfortunately for UK, it was third down — over and over and over and over and over and over.

"We did a poor job getting off the field on third down-and-long in the second half," Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks said. "And we couldn't convert third down ourselves."

That, in a nutshell, was the story line for South Carolina's ninth straight win over Kentucky.

The scoreboard numbers read Carolina 24, UK 17.

Every blue-clad member of a sun-drenched Commonwealth crowd of 70,822 knew what that score meant: make it Spurrier 16, Kentucky zero all-time.

Yet the really grim numbers for Kentucky were these: South Carolina converted on third down eight times in 17 attempts. UK's conversion rate on third downs was 1-for-16.

Believe it or not, Kentucky's performance on the most crucial down in any football game was actually worse than the dismal numbers indicate.

Of the 15 third-down plays on which Kentucky did not get a first down, eight were on plays of third-and-5 or less.

This against a Carolina defense that, while rugged overall, entered the game 10th in the Southeastern Conference (allowing a 37.2 success rate) against third-down conversions.

Afterward, South Carolina coaches were not claiming any great defensive smackdown.

"I don't know if we were that polished on third down," said South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. "I didn't think we put very good pressure on the quarterback. I thought there were several times that we had coverage situations where Kentucky had a chance to make the play and just didn't."

In games against other BCS conference teams — Louisville, Alabama, now Carolina — that has been the M.O. for the UK offense all season long.

No playmakers.

The knee injury that sidelined Dicky Lyons Jr. — UK's only reliable receiving threat — in Saturday's second quarter certainly didn't help Kentucky's third-down impotence.

Quarterback Mike Hartline was not sharp (23-for-43 with two picks and only six completions of 10 yards or more) throwing the football.

Yet, as has been this season's pattern, the non-Dicky Jr. segment of the Wildcats receiving corps did not make tough receptions to help their quarterback out.

"You cannot go 1-for-16 on third down and win football games in this conference," UK offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said.

Especially not when your defense is continually allowing the opponent to convert on third-and-long.

The big difference between last year's mediocre Kentucky defense and this year's far stouter version had been the ability to get off the field. Before Carolina, Kentucky was allowing only a 25.3 conversion rate (19-for-75) on third down.

Yet on Saturday, UK kept putting South Carolina in third-and-long — then watching the Gamecocks convert.

For the game, the "other USC" had six conversions on down/distance situations of third-and-8 yards or more.

"Real frustrating," said Kentucky linebacker Micah Johnson. "We'd been a good defense at getting off the field. Today, we had them third-and-long and didn't get off the field nearly enough."

Especially hurtful were three huge plays in the fourth quarter when Carolina rallied from 17-14 down. Backup quarterback Stephen Garcia moved the chains in the final period with completions on third-and-14, third-and-9, and third-and-12.

In at least two of those instances, Kentucky appeared to have good coverage on the Gamecocks receivers. On one, 6-foot-4 Carolina wideout Jason Barnes soared over 5-9 UK defensive back Shomari Moore to make a 27-yard catch.

On another, 6-5 tight end Weslye Saunders went over 6-1 Kentucky defender Winston Guy for a 14-yard gain.

"In most cases, guys were covered," Brooks said. "In most cases, the ball was thrown in a great spot and the height matchup on several of them were difficult for us and their guys went up and made plays."

So on a day when Spurrier's mistake-prone offense (four turnovers in the first half) and errant place-kicking (four missed field goals) were all but begging Kentucky to finally beat him, Cats failures on third downs did them in.

Again.

"We made eight of 17 third downs again and they made one of 16," the Head Ball Coach said afterward. "I guess that's where the ball game was right there."

When it comes to Kentucky, Steve Spurrier always gets the last word.

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